The Issue with Traffic

Before I dive into the meat of today’s topic, I want to spend a bit of time laying the groundwork. I think it will help you better understand what I’m up in arms about this time around and how it will probably affect you in the near future.

The most basic rule of any business is to “make money”. Any business that doesn’t have money flowing in … at least in quantities large enough to match or exceed the money flowing out … that company is dancing a Minute Waltz. Any minute now that business will waltz off into the pages of history. Businesses within Second Life are no different. While there are many Merchants that set up an In-World store or go to the trouble of making a Storefront on the SL Marketplace purely for the fun of making and selling things, there are also a lot of people that take the operation of their business very seriously. Not all of those make a living off their store either. They may just be making money to spend in SL, or they might cash out from time to time but nothing big enough to live on. No matter their “Bottom Line”, they use the time and experience of setting up and running a business in SL as very real and not at all “simply a game”.

For more background on today’s rant, take a look at the many plaintive comments and problem reports added as comments to JIRA SVC-8099. Then take a look at how “involved” Linden representatives are on the JIRA.

Business Resources

Any serious business needs things in order to work. Those things are called “Resources”. The list of Resources can include Virtual Land, various and sundry computer programs used to create models, textures and advertising artwork, and money to invest in obtaining those things. Other Resources that most businesses find themselves needing are access to customers and methods to reach out and contact them. One of the major benefits of running a business in Second Life is that there is (supposedly) a rather large and hungry community of potential customers accessing and using the platform every day. But their existence is not really enough for any business to make money with. Those potential customers also have to be reachable; the business owner has to have some method to get their products in front of those customers and sell them on why their products are better … or at least worth spending money to obtain.

When it comes to selling Virtual Products in a Virtual World to Virtual Customers, the success of any business venture is never a Virtual Certainty. In fact the only thing certain is that it’s entirely possible to invest a lot of money, time and effort only to watch it all evaporate in an amazingly short period of time. But then that same risk is present in the real world too, so it’s not different just more prevalent.

Customer Resources of the Platform

The customers that an SL Business needs to reach are all in the control of Linden Lab. They run the computers, create and maintain the software that brings the fantasy of reality into view, and they have complete control over when and how those customers are contacted. Their TOS has strong language warning people against “Spamming” and other (usually) annoying advertising practices. They also have similar edicts regarding the use of their Forums. But what about other means of contacting potential customers? What about ways to identify and target specific segments of the Second Life population with advertising and offers that aren’t annoying in the least? Are any of those methods available to business owners in Second Life?

In short, no. Linden Lab has since the first days of SL seen fit to build a high and impenetrable wall around their own customers, hiding them and shielding them from any contact by others within Second Life. Sure a Merchant can throw social events, use off-world methods (such as Twitter or Facebook) to try and generate a customer base, but within the confines of Second Life the methods of contacting fellow residents are tightly controlled and guarded by Linden Lab.

Other Means of Contact

In the beginning, there were a few methods that a Merchant could employ to find and court customers. Such things as Classified Advertisements, In-World Search and User Groups were provided as a means of building a customer base that could easily provide the Merchant with a sizable and vibrant audience for their products. The off-world sales site that was XStreet provided a number of access methods as well. The XStreet website hosted Customer and Merchant Forums. Sections of the site were specifically provided as a means to “get the word out” about your products. Many Merchants learned how to use those resources very well. XStreet also offered a number of “Enhancements” to product listings that would elevate the product to a visibly prominent location, all with an eye to increasing the product’s exposure to new potential customers.

However when Linden Lab bought out and took over XStreet then shortly after acquisition replaced it totally with the now-extant Second Life Marketplace, they removed all such prior resources … and replaced them with nothing. Even the Listing Enhancements offered by the Marketplace have been rendered virtually useless for the majority of merchants because they are high-priced, provide no viable traffic unless a very sizable investment is made in enhancements and have no useful or comprehensible reporting statistics that can be used to evaluate their usefulness.

To be totally blunt, Linden Lab has steadily (and without regard for the damage they were doing to the Resident-to-Resident economy) removed, disabled or gutted every previously existing resource that might be used to increase a business person’s customer base. When asked to explain why such resources were removed or to explain how the replacements could be used to any benefit, the Lab has been totally silent. Rather than talk with their customers or try to explain how a feature worked, they preferred instead to simply remain quiet and let people assume whatever they wanted. The net effect over time has been to slowly cannibalize in-world businesses, driving them deeper and deeper into the red … and driven many previously successful and viable businesses out of Second Life or even to other competing Virtual World Grids. As a representative example of their business acumen, it’s no wonder that Linden Lab itself has been suffering a constant decrease in their own valuation … eventually culminating in a rather large layoff of nearly a third of their employees.

In-World Search

As a tool to locate and attract potential customers, In-World Search is a horribly inadequate tool. Resembling more a spear than a fishing net, the very nature of Search … with its method of granting access to customers to only the top 3-5 businesses … is a poor method at best. In the context of Second Life where Linden Lab has systematically removed or disallowed all other means, In-World Search is the only option left. As such, the small number of businesses capable of hiring the expertise to monopolize their markets have already done so. Once Linden Lab recognized that the nature of Search was limiting the “winners” to a very small group, they set out to alter the tool and instead wound up crippling it so that there is still only a small handful of merchants that benefit from it, but that group has shifted to include only those that spend massive amounts of money in other ways or that have some sort of “in” with the Lab staff and management.

When the Lab switched over to the SOLR/Lucene Search Engine, they were finally able to “tilt” the results enough that very specific and select businesses were found at the top of the most hotly contested keywords. However they accidentally shot the wrong foot not long ago by elevating Parcel Traffic to a much higher influence over the ranking results. Suddenly a few of the “wrong” people discovered that they could rapidly outrank the current top-ranked listings just by improving their Traffic. However, instead of fixing the Traffic calculation as applied to its effects on Search, they instead chose to finally make good on a threat they raised some time back … to change the way Traffic is calculated.

Just to be sure my assertion is very clear, allow me to repeat it in a different way. Once they had added Parcel Traffic back into the Ranking Calculation employed by the SOLR/Lucene engines that run In-World Search, they suddenly realized they had to alter the way they calculate Parcel Traffic to favor specific businesses. Those initial changes were combined with the new “Pathfinding” code that was initially tested on the grid by incorporating it into the RC Magnum simulator code. After more than a month of “testing” they were finally confident that their new algorithms had the results desired, they forked it into the full range of simulator versions and just this week have finally introduced it across the entire grid. At the very core of the effort was the overarching need to keep specific businesses on top and push others down the ladder. Honestly there can be no other explanation.

Traffic … Then and Now

In previous incarnations, the Lab was more than willing to disclose the (approximate) method used to calculate Parcel Traffic. I believe this willingness to disclose the method was in large part due to the fact that there was nothing unfair or biased in the algorithm. It was a good-faith effort by responsible programmers to create an algorithm that would render a final number that properly reflected the TRUE traffic on a Parcel. But that was Then and we are stuck in the Now.

Since they have changed the Parcel Traffic algorithm used by every type of simulator server in Second Life, it is imperative that they also disclose the method by which they calculate that number. However they are steadfastly silent on this issue. Their only response to the many Support Tickets filed by Merchants who suddenly found themselves with extremely low Parcel Traffic numbers and correspondingly much poorer ranking in Search is to state that the calculation for Parcel Traffic is working “as expected“. That comment comes from a post on the JIRA Issue SVC-8099 that specifically deals with the issue of improper calculated Parcel Traffic.

So the final analysis points out that back “Then” the Traffic was calculated in a transparent and easily expressed manner. But “Now” the algorithm is strictly proprietary and is not about to escape into the wild unless someone inside the Lab’s walls goes rogue. I strongly suspect that if such an escape were to happen, Linden Lab would waste no time and spare no dollar (in lawyer time) to find and punish the rogue. Sadly they seem perfectly willing to spend a rather large amount of money and human resources to hide something that by all rights should be visible to all from the beginning.

The Cover-Up

Linden Lab routinely rolls out new versions of the simulator code that runs each Region in Second Life. They have three “Release Candidate” versions (called “Blue Steel“, “LeTigre” and “Magnum“). When they are satisfied that a new function operates according to internal requirements on an RC version, they update the main simulator code with the new RC code and push the whole thing out to the Grid. These rollouts happen on Tuesday and Wednesday of each week. Although sometimes they stage an emergency rollback when an RC release causes drastic and unexpected consequences, it has to be something pretty severe and unexpected for them to take that step.

When the changes in traffic calculation were first introduced in the Magnum RC version, the change was noticed immediately by many within Second Life. At least one was so stricken by the damage caused by the change that they requested and received a switch of their simulator from the RC Magnum version over to the main Second Life simulator code. This past Tuesday those changes in Parcel Traffic calculation were implemented across the entire range of simulator code. (The full set of recent Release Notes can be found on the SL Wiki at https://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/Category:Server_Release_Notes)

MediaWiki, the software that powers the Second Life Wiki property, includes a search function powered by Google. You can use that function to try and find any reference to JIRA Issue SVC-8099 in the Wiki. Notice that it doesn’t appear anywhere. Why is that? Why would a change that so drastically impacts the income and viability of Resident-Owned businesses in Second Life be completely ignored? You are welcome to come to your own conclusions, but I personally feel the only reasonable answer is … a Cover-Up.

As a result of the deafening silence from the Lab on this issue (along with the few very minimal and spurious Linden comments in the JIRA Issue itself), a number of people have begun floating theories as to why this issue is being given short shrift. The most prevalent is that it is somehow related to the release of the new Pathfinding code. Since the Pathfinding functions were first implemented in RC Magnum and that is the same version that first demonstrated the precipitous drop in Parcel Traffic, the logical conclusion is that they are somehow related. While that may be the case, as a responsible programmer and systems developer myself, I would have taken steps to find and remedy that unintended consequence. The Lab’s response though is to insist that Parcel Traffic calculations are “working as expected” … leading me to surmise that they simply masked the change in Traffic calculation by implementing it in the same code base as Pathfinding. In other words, they covered up the fact that they are putting their foot on the scale of business by hiding it under a rather massive change … the change called Pathfinding.

Failure to Provide Viable Service

Normally a “Service” company (such as Linden Lab) is held to certain legal standards that require them to provide a reasonable level of service. The exact meaning of “reasonable level of service” varies depending on the industry niche and how deep the dependence on that service by members of the community. When a government entity finds a power company or a telephone company delivering less than acceptable and reasonable levels of service, there is often a regulatory body that examines the situation, calls hearings and deposes witnesses in order to arrive at some sort of workable conclusion … a conclusion that benefits both sides of the desk (Service Company and Customers both).

However Linden Lab is one of the new Internet Service Companies that is strictly not governed by any regulatory agency. Even if there were, the Lab has covered their hindquarters by placing specific language in their Terms of Service that absolves them of any blame should they fail to provide even crappy service. When (and if) regulatory bodies are brought into existence, you can be damn sure that Linden Lab and the 1000’s of others just like them will spend millions if not billions of dollars fighting the agency at every turn. After all, it’s a very valuable asset to have on the company books … a complete and irrevocable “Get Out of Jail Free” card with no limits and no customer recourse.

What Linden Lab Must Do

I have a lot of moxy dictating to Linden Lab how to run their business … but someone needs to. The missteps, blatant blunders and just plain ridiculous things that the Lab engages in on a daily basis indicate a company that is fragmented, ill-informed as to their purpose and customers, and totally lacking in direction or guidance. Of course it could very well be that the hands on the helm of Linden Lab are making these changes and dictating corporate policy for very specific reasons. If the latter is the case, if the Lab undertakes these drastic changes and willfully destroys their customer base and the reason those customers stay around, then they are even more poorly informed as to what they are actually doing.

Linden Lab needs to begin publishing the internal details of the various algorithms and processes they use to calculate the very important “Numbers”. They need to stop hiding those details and start showing their internals to every one of their “Micro-Investors” (that’s us, the people that pay real life money to hang out here). They need to listen to the very loud “drift” of the customer commentary going on out here in the wild. They don’t need to react immediately to each and every complaint; no mortal or company could ever hope to do that. But it IS possible to get a sense of customer satisfaction and desire just by spending a little time listening and reading.

Do I expect it to happen? Unfortunately, no. Back when I first got involved in the “Machinations” of Second Life, I had the hope that there were saner minds in control somewhere within the confines of the Lab. Over time I’ve lost more and more belief that that might be true. From what I’ve seen and the changes wrought to the inner sanctum of the Lab, it now appears that any people willing to speak up and say clearly “this is a bad idea … we shouldn’t do this” have been cut loose or in some fashion muzzled. Apparently trying to do a good job is not a Work Ethic they value or reward.

The Bottom Line

At some point in time the primary goals of Linden Lab as regards Second Life changed. In the beginning it was a company set up and ordained to bring new and leading edge technologies in Virtual Worlds to the common masses. But when the platform got popular and began attracting customers from outside the original “Geek Community” .. when the coffers got full and every one of the investment community with a dog in the fight started barking orders from the sideline .. when Linden Lab lost touch with the concept that good customer service results in good profits .. that is when they signed their letter of intent to fail bigtime. But that’s not what saddens me the most.

What digs into my core and makes me reconsider every day if it’s worth any further personal investment of time and money is the fact that the actions of Linden Lab over the last few years leads directly to the conclusion that they are hell bent to destroy everything .. a tiny bit at a time.

Second Life is a beautiful world. It has been created by people with a grand vision to make something new, exciting and technologically fascinating. But the Lab has shucked that corporate goal and taken on a method of doing business that focuses clearly on the ultimate demise of all customer-owned businesses on the grid. There may eventually come to light a reasonable reason why they insist on hiding crucial data, in the process treating their paying customers with utmost disrespect and disdain. But until that time, until they decide to stop shoving us under the nearest steamroller … I’m afraid we won’t see any respite from the daily losses we are all suffering more and more each day.


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Comments

3 Comments on The Issue with Traffic

  1. Walls Within, Walls Without : DGP4SL Blog on Sun, 12th Aug 2012 2:44 PM
  2. […] my previous post on Parcel Traffic (“The Issue With Traffic“) I talked a lot about Parcel Traffic as a crucial number that affects In-World commerce. I […]

  3. Second Life Traffic Numbers on Sun, 12th Aug 2012 4:20 PM
  4. […] Gothly has a conspiracy rant out in: The Issue with Traffic. I’m not buying his take on what or why the Lindens are doing anything. His take is not fitting […]

  5. Medhue on Sun, 12th Aug 2012 6:44 PM
  6. Nice blog, Darrius! I think you were a bit too nice to the Lab tho, lol.