Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Extraordinarily low ratings for TurboTax

Around this time of year, I usually start looking around for new tax software (for the 2008 tax year). I like to get a head start on my income taxes before the end of the year. What a racket tax software publishers have! Each year, they update their existing software programs to match the latest tax laws. Sometimes they will add a few minor enhancements, but the end product largely the same as the previous year's version. Most readers know that each year, I choose to use either TaxCut or TurboTax to do my taxes.

Anyway, I was looking at TurboTax (Deluxe Federal + State + eFile 2008 version) at Amazon, and noticed that this product has already received over 300 reviews. It is unusual for a new product (which has been out for about a month) to have so many reviews, especially something as mundane as a tax preparation software. After all, it is not like people are reviewing a new Apple iPod, or the latest Blu-ray disc player. It is just tax software...

But what I noticed was that the vast majority of the ratings for the latest Turbo Tax were "1 out of 5", which is the lowest rating possible. Something definitely seemed wrong to me! Upon further investigation I found that reviewers were actually mounting a protest of two things:

1) TurboTax significantly increased the price of their software for tax year 2008.
2) TurboTax is now charging people an extra $10 for each additional tax return, if they file more than one.

It sounds like deja vu all over again as this situation reminds me of the year that TurboTax (Intuit) introduced its short-lived product activation scheme. To make a long story short, one was not allowed to install TurboTax on more than one computer, and this caused a lot of discontent among TurboTax users who prepare their taxes using more than one PC. This event became known as the "activation debacle" which Intuit experienced several years ago.

This year, I was thinking of switching from TaxCut (who also significantly increased the price of their software) to TurboTax. But after reading all of these negative reviews, I probably won't.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Promotional USB Flash Drives

Two years ago, I wrote about attending the Hard Assets Conference in San Francisco. This is a yearly investment conference that focuses on precious metals, mining, oil, and gas. This year, I again attended the conference at the downtown San Francisco Marriott Hotel. The carnival atmosphere was notably toned down compared to past years. With the world stock markets in decline and the general economy heading into a recession, there was little to celebrate among the exhibitors.

But actually, the conference itself is not the topic of this post. I previously mentioned that I discovered a new trend in freebies. A few companies were offering free promotional USB flash drives. For those who are not familiar with the technology, a USB (Universal Serial Bus) flash drive is a portable computer memory that plugs into a computer USB port and can be used like a miniature hard disk. USB Flash drives are also known as thumb drives, and often cost less than $10 for a 2GB unit at places like Micro Center.

Conference exhibitors load up these USB flash drives with information about their companies: annual reports, company press releases, PowerPoint slides, etc. The casing of each USB flash memory is printed with the company logo, and it is unmistakably a freebie. In general, a flash drive can be reused for storing pictures, MP3s, documents, etc. You only need to delete the existing data, or just re-format the drive to make room for your own files.

I came across a new type of flash drive at the conference. This one is a 1GB drive with two partitions on it meaning that it shows up as two different drives when you plug it into a computer. I didn't even know it was possible to partition a flash drive! The first partition is identified by the computer as a CD ROM drive, and it contains an Autorun script that loads up a web browser and automatically sends you to the advertiser's website. The second partition looks and behaves like a regular USB flash drive.

My expectation was that after viewing the information on the USB flash drive, the memory could be formatted and re-used for whatever purpose I wanted. The problem is that after I tried to reformat the flash drive, the CD ROM partition with its Autorun file remained intact. In other words, it always loads up the company's website, even after deleting all the data or reformatting.

I searched the Internet for some information on this type of USB flash memory, but I have not found a way to delete or permanently disable the Autorun feature on this USB flash drive. I also speculate that information from my computer could be automatically transmitted to that company's website. That is both an annoying and disturbing though.

Has anybody seen this new kind of flash drive? Do you have more information or thoughts about it?

Special offer: If your company offers promotional flash drives, you may qualify for a free advertisement on PFStock. Please Email me (my Email address is in the sidebar) for details.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Plan for the Worst

I started PFStock in August 2006 with the hope that younger readers and bloggers would look to me for advice. In one of my first posts on PFStock, I mentioned that I was subjected to downsizing twice in the past decade. I feel as if I've dodged a bullet, as my company had a significant layoff earlier this year, but I was somehow spared.

However, I am pessimistic about the current financial climate. The events of the past few months leading up to now have convinced me that an economic recovery will not happen soon. While many people talk about hope in future, hope alone is not enough to change the current economic malaise.

Over the years, I've learned not to get too overconfident. This year, confidence in the financial markets has certainly been shaken. Market volatility usually doesn't worry me because I have a diversified portfolio. But this time, I am worried! I wrote about irrational exuberance earlier this year. And while I predicted that the economy would be headed into a recession, I underestimated the severity of the downturn.

A down market usually presents a new set of opportunities for investors. But now, I am having trouble seeing where the opportunities lie. Indeed it is the time to plan for the worst.

I advise readers to carefully consider and to reconsider their investments. As I've said before, don't keep all of your money in once place. And it is not the time to buy into risky or exotic investments. While I believe that things will eventually turn around, any significant improvement may be far off. It is very possible that the economy may remain lethargic for an extended time. In other words, we may be in this for the long haul.


Monday, December 1, 2008

AdSense Irrelevance

What do pasta, hair coloring, movies, milk, ringtones, horoscopes, web hosting services, meal replacements, and waterless toilets have in common? Two things, actually: (1) Each of these products or services has at one time or another been advertised on PFStock through Google AdSense ads, AND (2) I have never written about any of these topics here on PFStock.

In its promotional material, AdSense promises to put relevant ads on your website, by matching ads to your site's content. They claim that you can earn an undisclosed sum of money through their service. However, there are restrictions to this potentially unlimited stream of revenue for bloggers. For example, I can't ask my readers to "click the ads" or "support us" as that would be a violation of Google's AdSense Program Policies.

However, if anyone is guilty of violating AdSense Program Policies, it is Google itself. How could anybody legitimately claim that any of the above ads are relevant to a personal finance blog?

So, who is making money on AdSense. From my anecdotal conversations with other PF bloggers, it is not the bloggers who are making any money on this. By contrast, I have encountered many web pages that used snippets of text that were literally stolen from this and other PF blogs for what is called a "Made for AdSense" advertising site. Such sites use multiple AdSense ads for the sole purpose of achieving a high rank in the search engine listings. The sites generally make little sense, but include many advertising keywords in the text, with snippets of text stolen from legitimate bloggers. The site owners hope that visitors will click the ads since they get paid per click. In one case an entire blog entry was stolen from my blog, verbatim. I contacted Google AdSense directly about this issue. This was their response:

Thank you for your note. Upon recent review of the website mentioned in
your complaint, we were unable to locate the allegedly infringing
content on the page in question. If this matter is still a concern, please
reply to this email with detailed information to enable us to locate
the allegedly infringing content.

The Google AdSense Team

Apparently the infringing material was removed from their website just before Google had a chance to look at it. But, I suspect that Google is really looking the other way whenever they encounter a site like this. And why shouldn't they? After all, Google makes money from these sites that steal copyrighted material from others. Since the financial rewards of my Google AdSense ads have been disappointing, I may consider other alternatives to AdSense. Does anybody have any suggestions?

Lastly, so that I don't rouse attention from the Google legal department, I feel that I had better post the following disclaimer: This post is not intended to reflect poorly upon Google (AdSense) or otherwise disparage or devalue Google’s reputation or goodwill. Any interpretation thereof is not intentional and exists solely in the mind of the reader.