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Google accused of burying webmail service on search results

ProtonMail’s ranking plummeted from the first page of Google’s rakings to the fifth, tenth and was later nowhere visible at all.
ProtonMail’s ranking plummeted from the first page of Google’s rakings to the fifth, tenth and was later nowhere

Google has been accused of hiding a competitor’s webmail service from its search results in a “suspicious” manner for almost a year, costing the service hundreds of thousands of pounds in lost traffic.

The company, ProtonMail, provides encrypted email accounts for users, and has been one of the most popular services of that type since its launch in 2014, as reflected by its Google search ranking: the company says it was placed “on the first or second page of most [relevant] queries including ‘encrypted email’ and ‘secure email’”.

In the autumn of 2015, however, ProtonMail’s ranking plummeted, from the first page to the fifth, tenth, and, by the following spring, nowhere visible at all. “All throughout spring 2016, we worked in earnest to get in touch with Google,” the company says. “We created two tickets on their web spam report form explaining the situation. We even contacted Google’s president of EMEA strategic relationships, but received no response nor improvement.”

The result of the collapse was ProtonMail’s growth rate dropping by a quarter for the affected months, something the company estimates cost it “several hundred thousand Swiss Francs”. In the end, it tried going semi-public, sending tweets to Google directly accusing the company of “intentionally hiding ProtonMail from search results”.

That seemed to work, sparking a reply from Google’s then-head of webspam, Matt Cutts.

MonsterMatt Cutts (@mattcutts)

@ProtonMail @googlewmc @brianwhite I believe the complaint got in front of the right folks. Let me check to see what the latest is.

August 9, 2016

“After a few days,” ProtonMail writes, “Google informed us that they had ‘fixed something’ without providing further details. The results could be immediately seen.” The company’s site returned to the first page of results, where it has stayed ever since.

One potential cause of the collapse in ranking could be ProtonMail’s site moving domains, from protonmail.ch to protonmail.com. Such transfers can cause the collected authority attributed to the site to be lost, forcing site owners to start afresh. But regardless of the cause, ProtonMail argues that the event demonstrated the existence of “search risk”.

“The danger is that any service such as ProtonMail can easily be suppressed by either search companies, or the governments that control those search companies,” it writes. “This can happen even across national borders. For example, even though Google is an American company, it controls over 90% of European search traffic.”

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Owlboy: the indie platformer that took 10 years to build

The team behind Owlboy say the game’s release was ‘incredibly emotional’.
The team behind Owlboy say the game’s release was ‘incredibly emotional’. Photograph: D-Pad Studios

Many video games with famously protracted development times have one thing in common: they turned out to be huge disappointments.

Spore was Will Wright’s attempt to simulate the evolution of a life form from the microbiological stage to space-age civilisation. It took eight years to build and never quite lived up to the epic premise. The much anticipated Too Human was juggled for nine years from the original PlayStation to a Nintendo GameCube exclusive, finally surfacing as a mediocre Xbox 360 title. Then there’s the notorious Duke Nukem Forever with its lawsuits and financial troubles, taking 15 years from first public announcement to final release – and it was awful.

Announced back in 2007, Owlboy flirts with those titles in terms of development longevity – released this month, the 2D platformer only narrowly avoided a decade from conception to release. It was also hotly anticipated. In 2010, it was named Game of the Year at the Norwegian Game Awards, and a year later its first public demo was widely praised. More recently, it was named “Best in Play” at the 2015 Game developer Conference, and was selected to be showcased at PAX West this past September.

But this is where the comparison with those other much hyped titles ends. Because Owlboy turned out to be magnificent, garnering hugely positive reviews. The question is: how did D-Pad Studios, a five-person team based in Norway, buck the trend from bloat to broke?

One factor is that Owlboy found itself in development suspension for very different reasons than those bigger titles. Sure, there was some drama, with the game’s original programmer leaving the project back in 2009, but this is not a story about huge budgets and legal papers. Instead, Owlboy’s level designer Adrian Bauer explains that the studio wasn’t officially formed until 2010 and that the custom XNA engine the team uses wasn’t particularly stable or optimised until around 2012. Unexpected family deaths and burnout have also caused small delays over the years as well. And then there was a side project, working with Norwegian musician Savant to create a game in his name, Savant – Ascent, released in 2013.

With Owlboy, the team set out to legitimise 2D art as something worthy and beautiful in itself, not just as a retro aesthetic
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The team set out to legitimise 2D art as something worthy and beautiful in itself, not just as a retro aesthetic Photograph: D-Pad Studios

None of these things are the main reason for Owlboy’s extended prelude, though. That is something more simple and admirable. “We aimed high and ambitious and decided no shortcuts and cut corners,” said Bauer.

When D-Pad co-founder and art director Simon Andersen came up with the concept for Owlboy 10 years ago, he wanted to prove a point: the advantages of 2D art over 3D art. “The Wii was promising it would change how games were played back when the project started, and pixel art was still very much seen as outdated, rather than an art medium,” Andersen said. “So before the whole 2D resurgence took place, I wanted a title that could showcase the medium’s strengths.”

Andersen looked to the Kid Icarus series at the time as talk of a 3D version was rumoured. Considering such a game, Andersen couldn’t see how any of the concepts of indoor flight in the series would translate well to 3D. His thoughts were that the 2D art allowed for much easier navigation – it would only be complicated by the extra dimension.

These thoughts congealed with an idea that Andersen had while he was replaying Super Mario Bros 3: “The raccoon suit you got allowed you to press a button to descend slowly after a jump, but what if you could just press it to continuously fly instead?” Andersen imagined that such a mechanic would let you fly really high, perhaps up to floating islands so removed from society that you might not be able to understand their language. It was here in this celestial realm that the foundations of Owlboy manifested. The rest of it came when Andersen considered how the character would be able to fly.

“A lot of options were considered. Jetpacks. The character being an insect. I considered a girl that spun her pigtails to propeller around,” Andersen said. “Then, my girlfriend suggested an owl and everything sort of fell into place right there. Owls would have their own cloaks that act as wings. Owls are also generally symbols of knowledge.”

The game uses traditional effects such as parallax scrolling to add depth to the environments
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The game uses traditional effects such as parallax scrolling to add depth to the environments Photograph: D-Pad Studio

A couple years after this was locked down, more and more independent developers started to pick up pixel art again. But it was often being used as a way to create art for a game as quickly and simply as possible, or to reference retro titles, rather than to push the potential of the artistic technique. “Having taught myself a very specific field, it started to dawn on me that artists that respected the medium were getting increasingly rare for a number of reasons,” Andersen said. “I decided I was going to use Owlboy as a way to showcase pixel art done properly, using as few ‘cheats’ as possible.”

It’s this dedication that, more than anything else, added years to the production of Owlboy. “The entire game is made pixel by pixel. No gradient or blur effects, no tracing or 3D captures. Not with millions upon millions of colours, but as limited of a palette as I could allow,” Andersen said. “The only thing that we’ve had to do is allow rotations, but I’m just going to have to accept that.”

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Emoji diversity: how ‘silly little faces’ can make a big difference

‘Emoji may seem trivial, but when you aren’t represented by something that’s so widely used, it’s a problem,’ says researcher Kate Miltner.
‘Emoji may seem trivial, but when you aren’t represented by something that’s so widely used, it’s a problem,’ says researcher Kate Miltner. Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

When Emojipedia founder Jeremy Burge sent his fiancee to the wrong side of London for dinner, he sent an apologetic text message. He received an emoji-less reply: “It’s fine.”

“We all know that’s not what it means at all. That means ‘it’s not fine’,” he said, pointing out that emoji have infiltrated language so deeply that their absence from that message carries a meaning that we all understand. Once considered a nerd topic, emoji have now become a mainstream medium, Burge says – and San Francisco’s first Emojicon conference seems to agree.

Hundreds of adults (and surprisingly few children) turned up for sessions including Emoji Karaoke, where participants had to translate the lyrics of pop songs such as Call Me Maybe into strings of emoji; emoji spellcasting, which revealed how modern witches have embraced technology; and a specialist emoji balloon artist whose biggest request was the poop symbol. There was even a stall selling Emojibator, a vibrator in the shape of the aubergine/eggplant emoji. Something for everyone.

Eggplant emoji vibrator known as the emojibator on show at Emojicon in San Francisco
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The emojibator on show at Emojicon in San Francisco. Photograph: Olivia Solon

Emoji users feel a significant ownership over these tiny digital symbols, as evidenced by the reaction when Apple swapped the gun emoji for a water pistol and changed the peach emoji to look less like a butt, or when a Saudi teen designed her own headscarf-wearing emoji.

Emoji have also been recognized as art, with New York’s Museum of Mordern Art (MoMA) acquiring the original 176 emoji designed by a Japanese phone company in 1999. Not everyone agrees with putting emoji on this lofty cultural pedestal, said Paul Galloway, MoMA’s architecture and design collection specialist, but there was similar pushback when MoMA introduced photography, cubist artworks and video games to its collection.

“People think we should be sticking to beautiful oil paintings by dead European guys, but this is part of a broader range of creativity,” he said.

Yet there are more serious cultural problems highlighted by the rise of emoji, particularly how to make them more inclusive to people of different races, genders and physical abilities. Until a range of skintones were introduced for emoji in 2015, there were no options for making emoji anything other than white (or cartoon yellow) – and even the new set of modifiers were only introduced after public outrage about lack of diversity.

This photo provided by The Museum of Modern Art in New York shows the original set of 176 emojis, which the museum has acquired.
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This photo provided by MoMA in New York shows the original set of 176 emoji, which the museum has acquired. Photograph: Shigetaka Kurita/AP

‘Technology neutrality is a myth’

Researcher Kate Miltner has spent two years researching why emoji were developed with such a limited worldview. She concluded that there was no intention to actively exclude people, but that the icons did align with a belief that inadvertently marginalizes people – the belief that technology is neutral.

“Emoji may seem trivial, just silly little faces, but when you aren’t represented by something that’s so widely used, it’s a problem. The values either intentionally – or unintentionally – baked into the systems we use on a daily basis can deeply impact people and how they navigate their world,” said Miltner, a PhD student at USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, who conducted extensive interviews with, and analyzed hundreds of emails from, the Unicode Consortium, the official body which standardizes emoji.