iGoogle’s slick revamp

I love iGoogle, it feels like my control centre.  I logged in this morning to be greeted with the familiar arrangement of Gmail, Calendar and collection of my favourite RSS feeds, but today I found that things have been tweaked a bit.

I’m impressed so far.  The way individual widgets can expand to fill the screen really helps to make the page feel less like a rather useful portal linking disparate elements and much more like an application, everything feels much more integrated.  When I need to read an email, it appears within the expanded homepage widget, likewise I no longer log in to Gmail for creating a new email (although I still have to if I wish to add an attachment for some reason!).

I also prefer having the section navigation on the left rather than the old tabs, but I think this change may prove more controversial.

Firefox 3.5 jpeg colours bug?

Here’s an odd one,  I just looked at a website I used to work on and spotted a problem with the background of the header graphic not matching with a phone number graphic that’s been put on top.  Apparently it worked fine for one of the developers, so I checked in other browsers and obtained very odd results.  Here’s a screenshot across Firefox 3.5, IE 7, Chrome 2, and Opera 10.

Weird!

firefox 3.5, IE 7, Chrom 2 and Opera 10

firefox 3.5, IE 7, Chrom 2 and Opera 10

Online Marketing Show 09 – London Olympia

Just finished up at the Online Marketing Show at the Olympia and there wasn’t really a lot to report, there was certainly an abundance of SEO and PPC firms but a worrying dearth of analytics firms there.  The only name I spotted was Webtrends which is a shame considering the number of interesting analytics toolsets out there, perhaps they’ve appeared there in past years and haven’t generated much business from it. If that’s the case then it’s a worrying scenario when we work on the most accountable sales channel – with powerful metrics showing where your sales come from and where you are simply throwing money down the toilet. Interesting…

The most interesting stuff in a very mixed bag was a demonstration of ‘augmented reality’, a term I’d heard of but didn’t understand.  Basically a webcam was focused on a piece of white paper which had something that looked like a large QR code on it, instantly a 3d rendered model of a car appeared on an adjacent monitor which was relaying the footage from the webcam. As I moved the paper around in my hand the car rotated as well.  While I couldn’t think of any use of this technology on any websites I currently work with, I can certainly see some creative implementations from very large brands over the next couple of years.

Pure 360 gave an interesting presentation about some do’s and dont’s of email marketing (unsurprising considering they’re an email marketing agency) and pleasingly encouraged the audience to test as much as possible. Man after my own heart.

Not all link building campaigns are created equal

Link-building, the result of an irrational obsession with the ‘green bar’ can damage your health.

Why? Two reasons:

  • Your main focus should be on delivering a regular stream of good content, peppered liberally with good keywords, marked up in an accessible way. Link building obsessions can take your eye off the ball.
  • The approach towards link building campaigns vary wildly with some tactics used that are downright dangerous!

Just as unnatural sounding product descriptions stuffed with keywords will undermine a user’s trust, poor link-building campaigns can produce similar effects.

Dangerous link-building campaigns

Last year, I had to evaluate a link-building campaign and it generated a few horrific gasps as I looked at each backlink in detail.

The site had been associated with low quality blogs containg bad or hardly any content.  In one instance the backlink was sandwiched between links to other sites which were either poor  pornographic.

Any development on your site including SEO strategy must be focused through the prism of your ultimate goals, in the case of an e-commerce site you should be gaining targeted traffic and persuading visitors to buy.  If a user stumbles upon less than reputable link partners, this could undermine your attempts at persuasion and lose sales.

Beware of link farms

The number of SEO companies that create link building campaigns based on ‘link farms’ is still worrying.  Following some research, I found that the majority of backlinks in the campaign I mentioned earlier had been purchased from a few users on a blackhat SEO forum.  The domains had lapsed, individuals would buy the registration and post them on the forum for sale with thread titles like ‘PR 5 domain for $10’.

The majority of these links came from the same IP range, the danger here is that Google will see these as ‘link farms’ and see it as a cynical attempt at cheating your way to a good ranking, rather than appearing to be a genuine set of links from webmasters who have seen your content and like it.

Review your link-building campaign

If you’ve outsourced your link-building campaign insist on as much transparency as possible – ask for a regular spreadsheet of links that have been acquired, research those links yourself or ask your IT team to do it (I recommend SEO Spyglass for obtaining a good list of backlinks, the competitor analysis is worthwhile using too), and ask the following questions:

  • Is it a good quality site?
  • Is it related to the topic of your site?
  • Was the domain name sold within the last few months (if so, it’s a fair bet it’s been bought by vultures and part of a linkfarm – avoid!)?
  • Are there a suspicious number of links from the same IP range?

There’s nothing inherently bad about link-building, but make sure your campaign doesn’t actually harm your SEO and persuasion efforts – you have been warned!

Clicktracks rebranded – Lyris HQ Web Analytics

I was very surprised to read that the Clicktracks name is no more.  Following on from the aquisition of Clicktracks by Lyris, I guess it’s unsurprising that they want it to be seen as part of a set of online marketing tools rather than an isolated product, a shame though as I think Lyris HQ Web Analytics sounds a bit dry and is a bit of a mouthful.  As long as they keep creating good analytics software who cares though right?

E-commerce survey – Price vs Reputation

An interesting article caught my eye on Friday with a simple enough and important message “Price is important online. But not as important as reputation“.  Referencing a study by usability consultancy Webcredible, the results are used to suggest that “28% of the 1300 online shoppers polled are most likely to make a purchase based on the reputation of a website”.  This is an eye catching statistic and one that will almost certainly be repeated by agencies trying to convey the importance of creating trust in a brand and convey reassurance between a site and it’s users.

I immediately thought about a quote from film critic Dr Mark Kermode:  ‘believe the tale, not the teller.’   Would a customer be able to tell you exactly why he bought from a specific retailer?  Given the myriad of subtle persuasive techniques employed both offline and online, it would be a challenge for any customer to give an honest answer as to why they bought, because in a lot of instances they’ll be responding to psychological effects they may not be consciously aware of.

Secondly and much more importantly, while I broadly agree with the conclusions that ‘experience, trust and reliability matter’, I’m not convinced that too much can be read into the exact statistics quoted.  While the e-consultancy article refers to ‘1300 online shoppers’, a quick glance at the original Webcredible survey says:

‘The ecommerce persuasion research polled 1,382 visitors to the Webcredible website between April and June 2009.’

1300 visitors to a website specialising in web usability consultancy is hardly a random sample of users.  I can only hazard a guess as to the breakdown of survey respondants but I’d be more than willing to suggest that the type of individual looking for usability consultancy is very web-savvy and aware of the dangers of unsecure websites, and he’s also likely to be on a significantly higher salary than the national average.  This would probably decrease the price sensitivity of the user.

An interesting study and an area certainly worth further research, but let’s not be too eager to quote exact percentages based on what appears to be a very restricted demographic sample.

Bing & Web Analytics Reporting

I’ve just been looking at last weeks web analytics data and I’ve spotted something that I expect will cause other people problems as well.  I’ll use the example of Clicktracks because that’s the web analytics solution that I use regularly,  I expect similar issues could arise with other analytics software.

Here is a snapshot of the paid search referrals from MSN adcenter for the week ending 30th May 2009

Week ending 30th May - PPC MSN

Week ending 30th May - PPC MSN

Ok…. so here’s the paid search data for the week ending 6th June.

Week ending 6th June- PPC MSN

Week ending 6th June- PPC MSN

Wow – where did all my visitors go?  Relax – they’re still there, but since Live.co.uk now redirects to Bing and Clicktracks isn’t yet recognising Bing as an engine so I’m not getting accurate stats on the search engine report.  Hopefully there’ll be an update soon.

UPDATE – Just been chatting to a confused webmaster who was unable to find out why Google Analytics was reporting that her MSN referrals had dried up, now she knows why! Google Analytics needs to update too as Bing shows up as one of my top referrers, but not in the search report.  Phew… Lets hope Microsoft stick with this brand for a bit longer this time round eh?

6 WordPress plugins I can’t live without…

WordPress is much more powerful than you might think and I love searching through the plethora of plugins available that can add in functionality that will turbo-charge your blog.

All-in-one SEO Pack

One of my main gripes with WordPress is that you can’t apply tailored meta tags and title tags to a blog post.  By default, all tags inherit from whatever tags you’ve specified for your homepage – unsurprisingly enough if you want to get ahead on the search engines, you’ll need to make sure you can specify apropriate titles and meta tags per blog post.  This excellent plugin fixes that.

Akismet

When you first set up your blog – be prepared for comment spam, it’s very annoying and even if you set up moderation on comments you’ll still get an alert everytime someone wants to post vague and poorly worded comments like ‘Good post. I like.’, accompanied by a link to some site selling viagara.  Akismet is a spam filter that makes my life much easier, I’ve heard there are other good alternatives but I’ve not had a problem with Akismet.

TweetMeme

Twittering is obviously a good way of getting some immediate traffic to your latest news articles and blog posts and giving a clear call to action to encourage people to post your link via twitter is great!

Twitter Status

A good way of adding a constant stream of fresh content to your site by displaying your current Twitter status – a great way to get new followers too.  My only issue with it, is it’s reliance on JavaScript – but I’ve looked at some alternatives and they’re not as good.

WP-Gravatar

Ever been on a blog and found that the users posting comments have avatars – that’s because they’ve registered on the site right?  No!  Gravatars is a global avatar system and wordpress blogs can hook into and extract the correct avatar based on the email address that’s posted a comment on your blog – very cool!

Google XML Sitemaps

Like the All-In-One SEO pack – this makes your life easier if you want to get some traffic from natural search.  Your XML sitemap comtaining URL’s of all of your pages are automatically generated after updates to your blog.

Any recommendations and suggestions for other plugins I should look at,  post them below.

BING it on! Microsoft’s ‘decision engine’

“Hang on one second and I’ll just Bing it!”… no, it doesn’t sound very likely does it? Having criticized MSN/Live Search for lacking a brand name that rolls off the tongue, it would appear that Microsoft reached for the scrabble set, threw it in the air and picked whatever tile combination landed at their feet.

From a marketing point of view – how do you get people to use Microsoft Live Search, or MSN? Those names just cannot enter the publics imagination in the way that Google has.  MSN is probably too strongly identified with Instant Messaging and ‘Live Search’ isn’t something likely to get used in conversation. Google has become a verb, Google defines what a web search is, and while ‘Bing’ is probably an attempt at addressing this issue, it just sounds terrible.

The most puzzling thing about Microsoft and the web, is that there doesn’t seem to be a strategy, with search sites seemingly abandoned quickly after hoping that setting it as the default engine in IE is enough to steal the market share from Google. It won’t. Google is the dominant search player because it delivers relevant results. It appeared at a time when alternative search engines were increasingly being overloaded by spammy results and creeping functionality led to unbearable homepages. Anyone remember Yahoo from a few years ago? An incredibly busy homepage with links to features and content that the vast majority of users didn’t need. Then came this new site which just had a search box, delivered relevant results in a clean uncluttered way.

So uncluttered in fact that if you dressed up identical search results and branded them up as Google, Yahoo and Live Search respectively, users believed that Google delivered the more relevant results.

The Register’s analysis is an interesting read, particularly when it talks about Microsoft’s decision to label Bing as a ‘decision engine’.

A Dramatic cake for film quiz winners!

It’s our turn to host the Light House film quiz tonight and it should be a good ‘un if all goes to plan.  As our team is named after the Dramatic Chipmunk we decided to decorate a cake for the eventual winners.  I say ‘we’, the cake was actually decorated by Jim Fownes, what a legend! Never have chipmunks tasted so good! Nom nom nom….

Dramatic Chipmunk Cake

FOWD 2009

Jquery, using personas to test for accessibility… and watching Microsoft pimping a table – it was an interesting few days at Future of Web Design, a series of presentations and workshops organised by Carsonified.

Jim Coudal (Coudal Partners) kicked things off nicely with an engaging presentational style and distracted me for a bit too long after revealing the band/book name combination game, (‘The Color Deep Purple’, ‘Fear & Loathing in Glasvegas’ sprang to mind).

I was impressed with Meagan Fisher’s presentation about developing for mobile devices but the whole area seems a very grey area; for instance I (unfortunately) have a Samsung Omnia – an awful windows mobile phone featuring a hotch potch mess of an interface which feels like an ill-thought out Iphone wannabe… . When I use Opera on my phone, some sites work ok as full fat incarnations of the site, but some don’t work very well because of the very dodgy touch screen controls… so do you presume mobile phones can handle the full version of a site, or do you develop a mobile version – if so which features do you drop. I’ll also keep my eye on a site Simplebits are currently developing – dribbble. I’m not a graphic designer so I wouldn’t really get much use from it, but it looks cool.

Mark Boulton’s Typography presentation was more relevant to Dave Bowers (Evolutia Design) than me but it was still interesting and delivered by someone passionate about his own subject.

The 2 presentations immediately after lunch left me a bit baffled, one encouraged designers to basically say no to clients more – felt like a waste of half an hour. This was followed by a presentation about interaction design that seemed to fall a little flat – it felt like half an hour of looking at someone’s portfolio.

The next 15 minutes were very bizarre though… Microsoft were pimping the table thing again. You know the one where you touch it and move things around…and um…. yea you know you’ve seen it on Youtube. But this was a presentation with a slight difference.

You know Alan Moore right? Crazy looking guy with wild hair, looks kind of like the guy eating crickets in the pet shop in Hellraiser. Alan Moore is regarded as an incredibly important and intelligent writer. A man who writes articulately and creates thoughtful and provocative titles such as V For Vendetta & Watchmen. He’s so protective of his own writing that he regularly insists that his name is removed from the credits of the films based on his work.

So… what would Alan Moore think if you distilled The Watchmen down into a 15 minute demonstration… of a table? A Microsoft table. Initially I thought they were going to build up to something but they didn’t. They just told the entire Watchmen story in 15 minutes with a combination of dry narration and cut up crudely drawn characters which were moved around on the table.

I haven’t seen The Watchmen. More importantly – I haven’t read The Watchmen. I’ve just had the entire plot of The Watchmen ruined by a silly attempt to make Microsoft appeal to a room full of geeks. Thanks for that.

Molly Holzschlag gave things a welcome lift with her excellent presentation about the future of web standards – thought provoking because I haven’t really looked into CSS 3 yet, I will take a look shortly though.

The workshops the following day were both excellent – Kath Moonan from AbilityNet gave presentations which covered accessibility basics but introduced important ideas about how you should test your site. The group exercise involved analyzing a website from the perspective of a user persona. The persona was a fully fleshed out character, with a name, likes, dislikes. So when looking at the site from the point of view of this character I think it did help to work out which elements of the design could potentially cause issues. The identification of the persona as a real person helped you get inside a user’s head a little more than if you were just asked ‘if you had learning disabilities what problems may you have with this site?’. Interesting and useful.

JavaScript libraries pop up all the time and since it makes perfect sense to reuse your existing code, I was interested to go to Stuart Langridge’s workshop which dealt with basic Jquery & then editing a complicated script written by someone else. Very enjoyable.

All in all I was very very happy with FOWD, very well organised by a good bunch of people, I’d definitely go again.

The Marketing Dinosaurs Are Extinct

Online Marketing Manager – a job title that appears in increasing numbers on job search sites, but it’s probably to be expected that an adequate description has not been settled on, and given the constantly changing, ever evolving nature of the web a satisfactory description will probably remain rather flaky.

The problem with online marketing in general is the number of Dinosaurs who are trying to transfer their skills from old-school media into this new age.

The proliferation of Internet access has been rapid, first with painfully slow dial-up connections and then almost as rapidly broadband connections – which are still becoming ever faster.

We’re not tied to the old fashioned breeze block style desktop PC anymore, with mobile phones allowing us to twitter on trains, & check your email at a football match. Right now I’m blogging from a tiny Acer netbook on a wireless connection. The online marketers who truly understand technology and the general direction it’s heading are the marketers who will prosper now, and continue to prosper. While general marketing principles can be transferred they need to be revised and updated to tackle this new media.

As Jeffrey & Bryan Eisenberg explain brilliantly in ‘Waiting for your cat to bark’, the increasing choice of media, be it more traditional such as magazines and television – or web-based have had a dramatic impact on how target customers behave. The increasing specialization of TV channels and the syndication of web content and the ability to display only the content relevant to the individual via services such as iGoogle means ‘1-size-fits-all’ style advertising campaigns have less of an impact than they once did.

Unless you understand this shift, it is difficult to succeed in online marketing, that’s why an increasing number of online marketers will have an academic background in technology. In many ways it is easier to transfer the skills of a web technology graduate to the online marketing role.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing…

SEO – I’ve yet to meet a traditional marketer who understands exactly what it is and how it should be practiced.

I’ve heard flippant dismissals and unjustified faith in snake-oil salesmen-like unethical agencies who deliver nothing but poor quality keyword-stuffed pages.

Better yet I’ve recently heard from one marketer who believed that Google would actually phone you up and tell you off if you had duplicated someone else’s content.

Make sure you write unique content and brush your teeth kiddies – or the GoogleMan will get you!

In itself, it seems fairly innocuous stuff – after all, does it matter if you believe in nonsense like that as long as the end-result is the same?

Well yes it does, because it leads to a very disjointed, jarring approach to online marketing, when what you should be striving for is a holistic approach. An approach focused on communicating your product benefits effectively, serving a user’s needs and answering their questions.

Online marketing should primarily be about fixing holes in a leaking bucket (your persuasion process):

  • Attracting your target users (Pouring more water into the bucket)
    • SEO, PPC, email marketing
  • Maximising your site performance (fixing those holes, so it doesn’t leak as much!)
    • Site usability, persuasive copy.

Search Engine Optimization is as much about the implementation of web technology as it is about writing, the myriad of issues that can affect the performance of a site in the SERPS make it difficult for a traditional marketer to perform such a task, or hold an agency accountable for potentially shoddy work.

Pay-per-click in isolation is something that can be run by a traditional marketer (writing good ad copy), the problem is – it’s performance is linked to the performance of your website, and this performance is measured by tracking user activity with analytics and usability testing – something traditional marketers rarely embrace.

If you’re constantly testing and incrementally improving how your site deals with it’s current traffic levels, retain existing customers and attract new ones – you’ll constantly be improving turnover and lowering your cost per acquisition.

Despite this, the number of online marketers who arrive into a new role and ditch the current site without performing any type of analysis on it, is staggering. What successful business ditches a site without analysing what went well, and what went wrong?

After a site design, too many sites are basically abandoned with a sigh of relief – ‘phew! The new site is live, we can forget about that until next year when we try to justify our salaries by asking for the annual redesign.’

What about testing individual page elements with a split test (Google’s free ‘website optimiser’)? Does the change work? If yes, make the change permanent and devise your next experiment.

Online businesses are much more accountable than their offline equivalents. Log files, Javascript tracking, usability tests all offer insight into what works on sites and where problem areas lie, and yet too often massive business decisions are made on the whim of an arrogant online marketer who doesn’t exploit the resources now so freely available – these are dangers that are much more likely to be avoided by the new breed of tech-savvy individuals who understand the medium now and where it is going, rather than old dinosaurs transferring what worked 10 years ago to a new and much more accountable medium.

Acer Aspire One A110 – Upgrading it to Fedora

My shiny new Acer Aspire One A110 has arrived.  Although I’ve already got a decent specced Dell laptop, I’ve wanted a netbook for a while.  They’re small and light enough to take around everywhere I go (and therefore blog and tweet more often) and also cheap enough that if it gets trashed in my bag on the way to work one day – it’s not the end of the world.  For only £169  I’ve got quite a good spec with an inbuilt webcam – the only thing I wasn’t too keen on was the preloaded version of Linux.

Now – don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic version of Linux for my mom to use (she also has an Aspire as it strips down all of the things she doesn’t and shouldn’t ever need to worry about – just give her Firefox on a light laptop and she’s happy.  But  I’d like to be able to have a more powerful Linux distribution.  The April edition of Linux Magazine had a very good article which suggested a few different netbook distributions such as: Eeebuntu, Fluxflux-eee (guy’s seriously – have a think about these names it’s getting increasingly insane!)

Ubuntu Netbook Remix caught my eye because I already use Ubuntu on both my desktop and other laptop and I love it, and the Netbook remix interface looks rather nice!  Unfortunately I tried installing Ubuntu on the Acer but it wouldn’t work and I received an error message which after a quick search appears to be related to detecting seagate hard drives – shame!

I ended up finding a guide to installing Fedora 10 instead.  I’d not used Fedora very extensively but it looks basically the same as Ubuntu, if you’re used to using Ubuntu it’s not much of a transition.

Thankfully the guide to installing Fedora 10 on the Acer was written very well and the minor issues that I did have were solved very quickly with the help of the guys at FedoraForum.

The problems I had were solved by immediately installing all of the available Fedora 10 updates, and following some of the instructions found in the Fedora 10 Acer Aspire installation guide (things like getting the webcam working).

It’s working very nicely now and I look forward to getting a MySQL frontend working on it shortly – and hopefully finding a way of using my mobile phone’s internet connection as well, I don’t much fancy the idea of paying for a separate mobile broadband connection – that’s just taking the piss.

When you need to change your email marketing

Email marketing is lauded as the most cost-effective online marketing channel but I’ve spent the last year working with an e-commerce site which has struggled to make email campaigns work. While PPC and natural search are delivering fantastic results (in the past 4 months the average cost per sale has halved), email marketing hasn’t been exploited properly.

The main problem is that the product area I’ve been working with (home learning courses) isn’t one which lends itself to being an impulse buy, and previous websites I’ve worked with such as AttractionTix have a variety of products at different price levels – all of which lend themselves easily to generate exciting and emotive email marketing. Product-oriented and special offer e-flyers weren’t working for us, so this week we’ve been able to try something new and have achieved some good results by selling our first add-on product – a low cost service which we thought would do very well with our existing customer base.

I set up a series of emails which were sent to different segments of our email list and the statistics have proved encouraging. 75% of the sales generated by the emails sent out this week were from existing customers, with the remaining 25% from users who had contacted the site but hadn’t bought anything.

Now the obvious answer would seem to be that ‘of course existing customers will convert better!’ – and yes assuming you have satisfied your customer, it should be fairly straightforward to maintain a good relationship with the customer. But one of the things it could suggest is that the type of language used in the email for a non-customer may need to be different compared to an existing customer. Does it need to re-enforce the USP’s of the site? Does it need to work a little bit harder to establish that trust with a non-customer? I’m not entirely sure what that difference may be but it’s certainly one I look forward to experimenting with by running some split tests on the non-customer segment using Lyris EmailList.

I’m currently planning out a comprehensive triggered-based email strategy that will take time to plan, write and a fair bit of programming to set up, but once established it should be both highly targeted and geared towards some of the ‘persuasion architecture’ ideas mentioned in Call-To-Action by Bryan Eisenberg.

Speaking of which, I am beginning to feel like my spare room has been invaded by Bryan Eisenberg, having added several of his books (including the excellent ‘Persuasive Online Copy’ which I had to track down on ebay – why is this out of print?), I’ve also picked up a book recommended by Lyris on Email Marketing with an Eisenberg-penned foreword, he must be a busy chap.

I’ll follow this blog post up at a later date and hopefully I should have some interesting statistics to share.

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Web browsing with no monitor

This week, I visited Pendeford Community Learning Centre at the suggestion from Val Smith. Val works with the Beacon Centre for the Blind in Sedgley and I spoke to him so that I could translate the theoretical and practical side of constructing accessible web sites into something more tangible; something more personal; in short – until last week I had never watched a visually impaired person use a computer.

On my journey to Pendeford I had the good fortune to meet someone who knew how to get there and found that he was involved in the class. In Val’s class it was nothing short of inspiring to see people of a range of ages learning new skills; learning how to use a computer without things that many people take for granted.

Where would most of us be without a mouse? More importantly, could you operate a computer if you turned the monitor off? Val can type at a much quicker rate than myself, his hands skating over the keyboard using shortcuts I wasn’t aware of, using the assistive technology – screen reading software JAWS to its maximum.

JAWS is very powerful, but it does have a steep learning curve with so many options and keyboard shortcuts, but when you can see someone able to use a computer better than many users without disabilities it is incredibly frustrating to know that many websites which have not been designed to assist such users, even things like putting in a link to a search facility instead of a search field can cause confusion.

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