Toys, cycling and babies

More than 18 months?! Well, I've been busy!

In that time we've developed a new platform for our price comparison websites, and launched the first few sites on it.

ToyCo, the toy and games price comparison site, was soft-launched October 2013 to test the platform and let us identify improvements and optimisations that could be made - nothing like throwing desperate pre-Christmas traffic at a site to flush out the issues! Christmas has started for me this year - we need to get a a lot of toys on the site before Xmas shopping starts in earnest in late October, so I'm reacquainting myself with Disney Princess and Barbie, if you know what I mean. :-)

And now LEGO Frozen Elsa's Sparkling Ice Castle is out and we're busier than ever with Disney princesses and dollies.

Second up was our new cycling site, Bicycles. Now, I've become a bit addicted to / obesessed with cycling, riding to work when I can, competing a little in cyclocross and time-trial, but the site is run by the real cycling obsessives in the family - Mark and Lewis. It's gone very well, and as ever we have ambitious plans to increase the size and scope of the site.

Lastly we have a new brand, BabyWiz, our fledgling mother and baby site. This is just beyond embryonic, and may be a focus for 2015.

On top of this we've developed our API for partners, providing access to our data and the ability to earn wodges of cash from your website. If you've got a high-traffic website related to any of the above give us a shout and we can tell you more.


This morning I needed to pull out names and email addresses from a MySQL table to import into a mailing list system.

The table has two name fields though - one a username, which is always populated, one a 'real' name, which is optional for the user. Since we want to use the subscriber's name in the emails we'll be sending I wanted to select the real name is if was populated, otherwise fall back to the username.

The MySQL COALESCE function does just this - pass it a list of fields and it will return the first non-NULL value in that list:

SELECT COALESCE(real_name, user_name) AS name FROM table;

This was new to me, and a very useful addition to the arsenal - previously I'd have used an IF statement to detect whether real_name has a LENGTH greater than 0, or post-processed the query results.


Trailblaze is a project to instal metal boxes permanently on long distance walks through beautiful and sometimes remote landscapes. The boxes are simply checkpoints to record the time that a runner passes and transmit his or her identity, location and time to a central system.

This has caused concern in some quarters. Natural England, who are endorsing Trailblaze, have been accused of betraying their own mission statement ("to safeguard England's traditional landscapes for future generations") by allowing this.

A 'Say NO to Trailblaze' campaign has been started; supporters can sign a petition to Natural England at the Say NO to Trailblaze website.

Yakety Yak time to talk back!

This is a quick plug for a friend's new business based in Edinburgh.

Fiona Gomes is the name of the friend in question and she has been talking about starting The Yakety Yak Laguage Cafe in Edinburgh for a while; and now she's up and running.

The idea is perfect - don't learn to speak Franch or Spanish in some old polytechnic on a cold Wednesday night in February. Learn over a good cup of coffee and set your own agenda or just go with the flow...

The fees look very good to me and to prove it I'm going to be booking in on some dates in anticipation of our holiday to France (and excitingly the Tour de France) this summer.

I think it's a fabulous idea and I wish Fiona the very best of luck.

J'espere vous rencontrer a une classe bientot! (thanks Google translate..)

Farewell, Jack Pickard

In November 2005 a small bunch of geeks met on a grey day in Manchester to discuss web accessibility. That's when I first met Jack Pickard in the flesh (we'd met virtually on AccessifyForum some time earlier that year). We quickly became friends and over the next few years I had the privilege of working and socialising with Jack.

Jack died suddenly last Saturday. It's a tragedy that someone who had so much to give, and gave it so freely, has left us far too soon. Whenever we met Jack always talked about his family, the GLW and his two sons, and my thoughts are with Tracey and the boys.

I wish I could do justice to Jack's memory here, but I can't express just what a great person Jack was. He was funny, thoughtful, intelligent, committed, and did more for web accessibility than can be measured. We never fell out, even on the day we first met when Chelsea beat his beloved Newcastle 3-0.

Farewell my friend, you'll be missed and remembered.

Trademarks: Where have all the words gone?

Buffalo.jpgGoogle adwords do a good job for us. There is no other way that we can drive highly qualified buyers to our sites at the 5 or 6 pence we currently pay.

There are challenges - succinct messages, effective calls to action and maintenance of real time prices to name a few.

Maintenance is taken care of by the increasingly impressive Mooch Engine. We can now receive a voucher code at midday, apply it to every relevant price immediately and include all of those prices in adwords within 10 minutes. We can now often get the price to market before the issuing merchant... which is good.

My recurring annoyance is the unrestricted spread of trademarks. Merrell don't want us to use their name to sell their products, neither do Ferrari, Brasher and a host of other name brands. This I can cope with (albeit we are actually trying to increase their revenue). These aren't words commonly used in conversation outside of the brand.

But how about "dancing on ice" this phrase, that used to belong to everybody, now belongs to a private company for the purposes of making money. No one is now allowed to use this three word string without the permission of a faceless marketing man... bad, but not the worst.
Imagine my delight when today I found out that buffalo is now a trademark. Someone owns this word and they won't let you use it (at least not on adwords).

This annoys me, but I bet it annoys mozzarella manufacturers, close relatives to bison and those gals who dance round the outside, a hell of a lot more. Not to mention the residents of that US town in the state of New York.

It is stupid but not unassailable - you see BuffaIo is perfectly acceptable... do you see what I did there... You should come here for Blogging tips!

Oh and while I'm at it could someone tell Google that Speed is more often used to describe motion than it is to describe amphetamines and Need for Speed is not a junky mantra it's a movie and a Wii game.
So use the words while they're still in the public domain, you'll miss them when they're gone.

Insert key for XP under Parallels

I'm working on an MS Project file running on XP under Parallels on my Macbook Pro. I'm missing the 'Insert' key that creates a new task - digging around the menus for it becomes old very quickly.

Searching turned up lots of old solutions around the 'Help' key which is non-existent on recent Mac keyboards. Finally found the solution, and to help anyone else who might be searching for this, it's: fn + Enter

Run Tool Mooch as your business

toolmooch.jpgWe've finally had to accept that knowing absolutely nothing about Power Tools is an unassailable barrier to making the most of Tool Mooch. If we weren't convinced previously then the amazing start Gayle has made with Baby Mooch has unequivocally proved that subject matter experts do better.

So unsurprisingly we are now seeking a knowledgeable individual to run Tool Mooch for us on licence.

Mooch Engine is pretty intuitive there's no real need for technical knowledge but knowledge of tools is essential. Location isn't vital but local to central Scotland might be useful.

If you fit the bill and fancy having a chat then drop us a note via the website.

What do Affiliate Networks actually do?

Babalu: Rickshaw Pilot and Affiliate extraordinaire

Mooch Marketing currently makes its way in the world by producing affiliate sales. We point people to the merchant with the cheapest price for a given product, they buy it and the merchant gives us some money.

If you've ever sat in a bicycle rickshaw in Delhi and ended up at the best 'Government Approved' sari shop in India you will know that the concept is global.... payment for introduction / sale.

However, unlike India in this market we introduce a third party who sits between the sari shop and the rickshaw pilot and takes some of the proceeds of the deal.... but for what?

To date, apart from one notable exception (which is the main reason for this post) our only contact has been to ask them to help us with problems we're encountering with merchant and network technology. Almost universally this has resulted in our chasing them 2 or 3 times as the Chinese whispers start, the complication ramps up and the problem remains static.

In every one of these cases we would have preferred to speak directly to the merchant because when we do things happen.

But earlier today I had a teleconference with Sophie Metcalfe of Affiliate Window and Martin from one of our mutual merchants. The whole thing was set up by Sophie who had identified both parties as having the potential for a closer working relationship and had clearly started to consider what and how was possible.

In one sense this is pretty straightforward but as we are a price comparison site who aren't prepared to promote or suppress prices (you know who you are) the opportunities can, at first sight, appear pretty blunt. Despite this we spent 40 excellent minutes learning about what each other did, finding some common ground and seeing if we could make something of it.

And we can - the potential for mutual benefit looks really promising.

So thank you Sophie for doing what we kind of hoped Affiliate Networks would do and for actually doing better than we had hoped. 

The price of principles

It's 40 quid.

In October we're going on holiday to Skala in Kefalonia. We're staying at the Villa Costa, a small family-run hotel with just 7 rooms. Neither of us has been to Greece before and we're really excited about it - it'll be our first holiday for 12 months and it's been a busy year.

Skala wasn't our original destination. Back in January we made a booking for the luxurious Hyatt Regency in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, for the same week in October. It was expensive, but it looked worth it. We've been to Egypt before, cruising from Luxor to Aswan, and were looking forward to exploring Sharm.

Then in April the Egyptian government responded to the outbreak of H1N1 (known by the media as swine flu) by ordering the slaughter of more than 300,000 pigs.  Putting aside the issues of potential religious persecution (the vast majority of pigs in Egypt are owned by Coptic Christians, the majority of the country being Muslim and non-pork-eaters), the bad science behind the cull (this is a human pandemic, the virus is not transmitted through pigs), and the potential public health implications (many of the pigs in Egypt are fed on organic waste which will now rot in situ), it was the nature of the cull that appalled us.

Few countries have the facilities to carry out a cull on this scale. The cull of cattle in the UK during the foot and mouth outbreak in spring 2001 showed how ill-prepared we were then. Although large numbers of cattle could be killed in a relatively humane fashion (although even here the use of captive bolt guns and intra-cardial injections was controversial), the logistics of disposing of the carcasses led to vast mass burial sites (up to 500,000 cattle in each) and the unforgettable pyres.

The solution in Egypt? Throw hundreds of live pigs on top of each other into dumper trucks, drive them some distance to mass graves, throw them into the pits and cover them, still alive, in chemicals including quicklime. This results in a lingering, painful death. It's a shocking way to treat any living thing, and as small-scale pig-keepers we know how sensitive pigs are.

Warning - you may find this video distressing.

So last month we cancelled our planned trip to Egypt, paid Sovereigh the 40 quid amendment fee, and saved about £1000 in the process. Some of this went to support Compassion in World Farming, who are campaigning for the Egyptian government to introduce animal welfare legislation outlawing this barbaric treatment of livestock.

Yahoo Search Marketing. First Impressions or lack of...

We have a small problem: we can't move our ad budget through Google without compromising margins. As a result we decided to offer some money to the Yahoo people through their 'Sponsored Search' programme, which whilst sounding like the latest fund raising idea for the local primary school shares most of its characteristics with Google Adwords.

The initial sign-up process was largely uneventful although I'm not sure why all of the networks insist on the creation of a complete campaign, adgroup, keyword list and ad before being able to seriously look at how you're going to structure the account or anything else.

We had established that it was possible to upload our Google campaigns using csv files and chose the most straightforward example as our test - 6 ad groups in a single campaign. The import process starts with an export from the Google Adwords Editor. Top tip here is to only export one campaign at a time, since the Yahoo upload can get a bit lumpy otherwise.

Next you use the Yahoo interface to convert the file to its format before uploading it as a bona fide Sponsored Search campaign. This proved a bit tricky. The interface shows two fields where the link 'download' could be shown, unfortunately if there are errors in your file this lionk only appears in the comments box, and if you don't immediately realise that this combination of box and term are negative you assume all is well and try to continue.

At which point you have your first encounter with the message: 'The upload file you selected does not contain a valid header', which is Yahoo code for "You haven't sorted out the errors yet because you've taken this from the comments field and not the Converted Campaign File field where the nice downloads hang out".

yahoo.pngThe way you go about breaking the code is to do the same thing 3 or 4 times again before googling (sorry yahooing) the term and surfing the forums and blogs.

So if you're arriving here at this point in a similar journey I can tell you that "the upload file you selected does not contain a valid header" is almost certainly a result of negative keywords in the original Adwords Editor csv -  just delete them, start again and you'll be back in business.... or will you?

No, you won't. Yahoo want to check your site out before running your ads and this will take them.... 3-5 business days!!

So our first impressions are, well none yet, unless we're talking about being a customer of Yahoo which, so far, is significantly less impressive than being a customer of their major competitor.

I think I'll go and see what Bing is up to....

Turn2us - Anita's story

In May 2007 I started working with Turn2us, a then embryonic charity based in London. Their aim is to help people to to access money and support that is available to them, through benefits, charitable grants and other avenues.

The Turn2us website supports people by providing a benefits checker, a database of grant-giving charities and a growing knowledge base of help and resources.

Anita's story encapsulates what Turn2us is about - "Someone's there helping me in my time of need":

This series of videos is their first foray onto YouTube: if you enjoy them and want to support the aims of Turn2us please help to spread the word, or just give a nice rating. Ta.