Friday, 31 December 2010

Three easy predictions for 2011

   ...All of which will look delightfully na├»ve by late December 2011.

(1) People will consider Microsoft Windows Phones worth having
    Windows-toting mobile phones have never been cool, have they. Everyone's got at least one friend who's got one, but they're always the friend that has to enthuse a little too much about their mobile because it doesn't quite deliver. I remember being quite excited about one friend's XDA, before finding just how clunky it was compared to the ageing Nokia running Symbian I had at the time. A high end smartphone has to be *really* clunky to make the Symbian interface from circa 2005 seem slick and easy to use.
    Windows Phone 7 has changed all that in my view. Sure it's no iPhone, but the interface doesn't make you want to smash the phone in frustration and unlike some earlier Windows Phone offerings it delivers what you expect of it. But that's not the key feature that I think will make Windows Phone 7 cool in 2011.
    The first Windows Mobile phone I ever saw was owned by a friend who is a .net developer. He was excitedly showing his desktop .net  app of the moment running on his phone. It was pretty useless with a tiny screen, but it ran. Because as a Microsoft device it came bundled with the .net runtime, and as a .net developer his skills were instantly transferrable to his phone.
    And there is the reason I think Windows Phone 7  phones will become cool. Apps, and its tight integration of .net. Decent hardware paired with a lot of marketing and a good app store, these phones will sell. And since there is a huge developer community of .net developers who do not need to learn any new skills to create Windows Phone 7 apps, I think that Microsoft will not face the same challenges that Symbian or Bada face to attract developers in 2011, and the resulting high quality apps will make Windows Phones worth having. Not even Microsoft could screw up such an opportunity, could they?

(2) Companies and the media will wake up to the idea that not just the iPhone can run apps
    Am I the only person who is sick of seeing companies, newspapers and others proudly touting their new mobile capabilities with an iPhone app? My prediction for 2011: a chill wind will blow through the marketing departments of the land as they realise that all the cash they spent on that shiny new app isn't going to make them a penny from all the millions of owners of Android and other smartphones who can't run iPhone apps.
    Whether this means that they will start offering a range of apps for different platforms or simply move their app content to in-browser online delivery I wouldn't dare to predict. I'd expect the latter though. Shame it's a little early for W3C Widgets.

(3)Tablet computers will become cheap enough to be given away free
    If you are unfortunate enough to have handled one of the cheap and nasty Android tablets that have appeared in the last few months, you'll know just how nasty they are. Horrible user interfaces on resistive screens, too-slow processors, not enough memory and too-short battery lives. At around about £100, they are a huge disappointment and waste of money.
    But how would you view them if they sold for £50? Too much? How about £25? Or how about free? Imagine, you are a large home-delivery or mail-order business, perhaps a supermarket. You have millions of customers and you want them to be able to access your service with the minimum fuss wherever they are. If only they could just pick up a tablent while they are slumped in front of the telly, go straight to your site and spend their money.
    If you are a nationwide supermarket chain, you have the buying power to pick up cheap and nasty Android tablets from China in shipments of millions for relative pennies per unit. And if by giving away a tablet to each customer you guarantee yourself a massive sales increase, then a free tablet for all becomes a no-brainer.
    I don't know who will be first to do it. Tesco perhaps, to their phone or broadband subscribers. But I'd be surprised if 2011 didn't see at least one free branded tablet in the living rooms of the UK.

    So there you go. I've set myself up for a fall this time next year, but I think these three really do have a chance of happening in 2011. Only sitting out the year can tell me the really interesting stuff I missed.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Worthless by degree

    In the wake of the recent student protests over tuition fees, I have heard more than one conversation recently on the subject of students, their resources and the courses they are taking at university. Most of these conversations have passed me by, there was little point in my participating as the scale of the ensuing argument would be out of proportion to the scale of the points I might make.
    One friend of mine annoyed me enough to pull out my keyboard though, with the assertion that "worthwhile" courses like science and engineering should be fully funded while "worthless" degrees such as art history or media studies should receive no funding. The speaker expected my agreement, as my degree is in electronic engineering, and was quite surprised when I rather vehemently expressed opposition.
    You might expect that I'd be about to say that all degrees are worthwhile, and that art historians and media students deserve support as much as electronic engineers. And I won't disappoint you there, after all my sister is an art historian who spends a lot of her time ensuring that media studies students have at least one course they have to put in some serious work at to pass.
    But what you might not expect is that I would attack the notion that an engineering degree is a worthwhile degree that should be viewed as more important for funding than any other. My experience of having an engineering degree is that once outside the walls of the university it really hasn't been of much use to me directly other than as a bit of paper, the teaching was designed to breed engineering PhD students rather than equip us for life in industry and everything I have done for a living since has either been learned on the job or based upon something I learned outside university. Yes, my whole career as a web developer started with Microsoft ASP back in the 1990s, which being a BASIC scripting language was a skill I built on something I learned as a spotty kid long before I reached university.
    "But the country needs engineers!" I hear you say. And I'd have to agree with you there. Though I think the meaning most people would ascribe to that sentence is rather different to the meaning I would ascribe to it.
    To me, the country needs engineers rather than simply people with engineering degrees at all costs. In other words, the country needs as its engineers people who are born to engineering as a vocation, a gift even. It's never been viewed as something particularly special but it should be, I doubt I'll hear many middle-class parents enthusing about their offspring's aptitude for Meccano or coding in the same way they would if their little Tarquin turned out to be a musical prodigy. And just as there are born engineers, so are there born art historians and even born media students who would be utterly wasted on an engineering course.
    If we have created a world in which tertiary education is near-mandatory and a degree certificate is required to embark on careers for which a school certificate would have been required for our grandparents' generation (and yes, I count my career among those), it seems to me crazy to force people into degree courses purely for ideological reasons that they are never going to find any value from and which will have little bearing on their eventual careers.
    Far better to have degree courses on which places are earned by merit and whose subjects depend on the aptitude of the student. Oh wait, wasn't that what we had twenty years ago?

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Strabismus

   This morning I stumbled on a site that made me think a little. It's a site promoting an ebook by the parents of a child with a strabismus, detailing their child's treatment. I left the following comment.
I have to admit to reading this site with mixed emotions. I’m a 40 year old British person with a significant strabismus, something I’ve had since birth. I don’t have hardware 3D vision and never will have, my eyes are like separate cameras meaning I can switch between two views of the world.
This has never been a problem for me, it has only very ocasionally been a problem for others. It has never held me back in life, education or the workplace. So I can never be a fighter pilot, but does that matter?
I understand why you were horrified by it in your son but speaking personally I am very glad my parents did not put me through the pain and risk of surgery when I was too young to understand what was going on. I’ve always seen it as very much a part of me and have no desire to seek any treatment for it as an adult.
So those are the effects of strabismus on someone who’s lived it. If one of my kids is born with it I’ll leave it until they are old enough to understand before I ask them if they want surgery.
    It's probably a bit off-message for them so it may not pass their moderation, but I felt it needed to be said. I understand the pain of a parent whose child doesn't meet their idea of perfection, but as one of those imperfect children I squint and I'm proud!

Friday, 3 December 2010

Report from OpenMIC9

     So I spent yesterday at the Jam Factory in the company of about fifty geeks talking about everything mobile at Open Mobile Innovation Camp 9. These type of events are a good place to meet others of like mind and learn about emerging trends and technologies in a particular field. Sometimes the geek level is higher than others and at times one can be left behind by people far further ahead of the wave than oneself, but thankfully yesterday was very accessible and I came away with far more information than I went in with.
    As is often the case at such events, the morning's schedule was filled with talks from selected luminaries of mobile development and the afternoon to "barcamp" sessions - geeks talking shop.
    Google's Reto Meier couldn't make it due to the snow, so we had a talk on the future of mobile technology from IBM research's Dale Lane, a talk on the comemrce and marketing of the mobile app space from Everything Everywhere's Mark Watts-Jones, a talk on upcoming W3C mobile standards including my interest of the day, W3C widgets from Vodafone's internet evangelist Dan Appelquist and a demo of mobile app technologies from Calvium's Tom Melamed.
     In the afternoon's melee I ended up caught up in a weighty discussion on identifying your mobile users and their device capabilities - important to us if we ever want to get the best experience over to our visitors - and then an examination of the evolving nature of a smartphone. Interesting, if rather geeky stuff.
    All in all a worthwhile day. I came away knowing more about widgets which was my objective for the day. I'd like to think in a year's time when I'm waving a phone with a dictionary widget on it at anyone who'll listen, that the marketplace will be just about ready for them and we'll thus steal a march on all our competitors who've rushed headlong into the app stores.
   I can hope, can't I.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Google locks me out, then apologises

    This morning I was probing some of the more obscure sites linking to the Oxford Dictionaries Online web site by running a Google link: query. I was paging through the results ten at a time. Very monotonous and repetitive.
    Suddenly, this happened.
    It seems I was mistaken for an automated search engine scraper, probably because I was making regular queries without clicking on any results. There's a first time for everything I guess, and I've just uncovered a Google feature. A quick clear of recent cookies, and I was back on my way.
    It's a long time since I used software to retrieve results from Google. Probably back when they still offered a SOAP API.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Testing an HTML placement for third party sites

    Writing an HTML placement for third party sites used to be so easy. Back in the bad old days of tables and frames, you simply created a little table with all those nasty width, height, cellpadding and cellspacing attributes and called it good. You knew you had a pretty good chance of it working as you intended it to on pretty much any site it would be placed on.
    CSS has changed all that. Our HTML is much cleaner and easier to understand because all the styling and layout has moved into the style sheet, but placing outside code into a CSS page is now fraught with danger. The Cascading bit of Cascading Style Sheets means that the developer has to be extremely careful to ensure that no stone is left unturned and no opening has been created for a global style declaration to affect the placement styling. All of which leads to excessive amounts of inline styling that rather negates the point of CSS to create cleaner code.
    The placement below is an example. Created as a search box for the Oxford Dictionaries Online site, it should work with all modern browsers and degrade gracefully with older versions. But as all developers know, you can test something on everything you have and there will still be a platform out there that will trip you up.
    And true to form, on first load something's changed the formatting. Watch this space, CSS tweaking at work... Carriage returns replaced with <br> tags by the WYSIWYG editor. Lose the carriage returns and there it is.
    Oh well, that's Blogger ticked off the list of platforms it's been tested on.

Friday, 5 November 2010

DIY successful linkbait guide

    Reblogging other people's stuff rather than writing your own content is not the way to a healthy blog, but every now and then something comes along so elegantly done that you can't help yourself. Such it is with Voltier Creative's beautifully self-referencing DIY guide to a successful linkbait infographic. Everybody who creates content for web sites should read it.
    Top marks for the idea and the design, but nuls points for having what looks like unevaluated PHP appearing in the link targets on their blog. And I balk at linking to them with the keyword stuffed phrase they put in their embed code.
    The infographic image is here, enjoy! (Warning: it's quite large!)

Friday, 29 October 2010

Identifying your mobile visitors from web stats

    As mobile browsers have moved from gimmick to the mainstream over the last few years the job of a web developer has had to evolve to service their needs. With full-featured mobile browsers replacing the cut-down early offerings we might have to worry less about our mobile users than we used to but we still have to ensure that they can use our sites with few problems.
    The problem with mobile platforms from a developer perspective is that there are so many of them in use. Testing a web site on the desktop is comparatively easy, once you’ve made it work in IE and Firefox, you’re unlikely to find any issues in Chrome, Safari or Opera so once you’ve given it the once-over on a Mac there’s not much left to do. By comparison it is almost impossible to have one of each of the plethora of mobile phone platforms so once you’ve looked at the iPhone, Android, and Opera browsers, with maybe Windows Mobile and Blackberry as well (assuming you are fortunate enough to know owners of all those handsets) you have little idea how the rest of your mobile users will experience your offering. In my case I have an Android phone and a Series 40 Nokia clamshell, and I borrow a friend's iPhone 3G when I need to test that platform.
    To shed some light on the matter you need to know the scale of the problem. So you go to your web stats or analytics package and look at the browser/OS combinations. If you’re lucky, your package will be capable of recognising smartphones, so you’ll pretty quickly see stats for visitors with iPhones, Android phones and maybe Blackberries. But a cursory glance at the detected user agents should tell you that is only the tip of the iceberg. A quick look at mine reveals a huge list of feature phones, some from well-known manufacturers like Nokia or Samsung and other devices I’ve never seen and in most cases never heard of.
    On my site I finally settled on looking at screen resolutions. I decided anything smaller than 640x480 had to be some kind of mobile device, so added those numbers to those of a few well-known larger-screened devices. The iPhone 4's 960x640 pixel display being a good example. In the end I found that around a tenth of a percent of my site's visitors were mobile users. This was less than I expected because I think the number of different user agents had led me to believe there would be more, however it tallied with the figures for browsers and OSs so I found it to be believable.

Friday, 8 October 2010

A company: "Them", or "It"?

Consider the following phrase: 
"Since it is the market leader it can be assumed that what works in relation to Google will also work for its competitors
     Google, like any other company, is an entity. "It". But Google is also a collection of offices full of people. "Them". 
     "Google are writing software that..." or "Google is writing software that..."? My inbuilt English language parser tells me to use the former. Is it leading me astray?

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Is there a relationship between content volume and traffic?

    My exercise in future web traffic prediction last month must have caused some interest among its target audience, because I've been asked for more. This time with a twist.
    The question: "If we add a load of extra pages to a web site, what effect will that have on the traffic?". How long was that piece of string again?
    An impossible question to answer. It depends on factors too numerous to quantify and any figures I come up with can't be trusted, I said. We know, they said, but give it a go anyway.
    So I thought about it and decided on the well-known theoretical model of a long tail web site. One with many pages, each of which scores on its own search term and each of which only brings in a few visitors, but when all are taken together the total of all the visits for the site is a very large number. In a long tail site, visits are proportional to page numbers, so all I had to do was work out the average number of visits per existing page and multiply that by the number of new pages for an estimate of the extra traffic.
    My problem was that the figure I reached looked far too optimistic. Believable I guess, but only just. An upper error margin for my new traffic estimate.
   And there lies the fatal flaw in web traffic prediction. As I remarked last time, all I am doing as I go further into the future is giving myself an ever-increasing error bar on my figures. And by adding yet another estimate on top of an existing estimate, all I am doing is increasing that error bar to the point at which the figure becomes meaningless.
    Still, it's an interesting exercise, if only to create some pretty graphs.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

A little experiment in hiding words in plain sight

    Yesterday at work I decided to try a little experiment. My desk is next to a busy thoroughfare, with a lot of people who I'd rate as fitting my target audience passing me every day. I printed out a QR code encoded with the phrase "Does anyone respond to QR codes? Email me if you're one of them" and my work email address on a piece of A4 and stuck it on to the office partition facing my passing colleagues.
    QR codes have interested me ever since I first read about them a few years ago. Beyond the steganographic appeal of hiding text in plain sight they offer an interface between printed media and the online world, two areas that seem so mutually exclusive. And since most mobile phones now have the capability to read them they should be far more common than they are.
    Hence my experiment. Employees of a large publishing company are likely to have at least heard of QR codes and also to posses smartphones, but how many will respond to one in their everyday environment?
    I'll be leaving my QR code up for a month. I'll be very disappointed if nobody responds to it.

Monday, 27 September 2010

RSS feed keyword analysis for the fun of it

    What do you do when the recession hits and you are made redundant?

    When it happened to me last year, I wrote an RSS feed keyword trend analyser in my new-found free time. Over a year and several million keywords and phrases later I can find associated keywords and phrases and plot graphs for almost anything that's been in the UK mainstream news. Like this one, showing the fortunes of three Labour party leaders over the past few weeks.


   You can clearly see Tony Blair's book launch as the blue hump in the middle, and Ed Miliband's election as party leader in green on the right. Meanwhile Gordon Brown bumps along in the obscurity of his Scottish constituency as the red line. Funny that, the colours were allocated at random by my graphing library yet Blair got the Tory blue.
    As a search engine marketeers tool it's of limited use unless you really are looking at up-to-the-minute trends for very fast moving content. But as a toy, or for finding collocated words and phrases for newsworthy themes, it's shaping up pretty well.
    I'll be dipping back in to this particular well of words again on here from time to time, both from the tech side and just for the joy of playing with some words.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Predicting future web site traffic

    Recently I had the unenviable task of making an attempt to predict the traffic levels likely to be seen on a web site in the few months following a piece of search engine marketing work. Unenviable because it's a "how long is a piece of string?" question, impossible to answer with the certainty usually demanded by those who ask it. I gave it my best shot and thought it worth recording here how I did it.
    Web site traffic is cyclical. That is to say that the traffic pattern seen on a site over a given period in one year is likely to be mirrored in the same period in the following year. These same cycles can be seen on different sites in the same sector, so if one site selling pies sees a traffic pattern it is likely that another pie site will see the same pattern over the same period.
    The site in question has not been online for long enough to have gathered statistics for this period in a previous year. This meant that for the purposes of this exercise I had to look elsewhere in the same industry to establish the likely traffic patterns for the next few months.
    A competitor graph was created using the compete.com competitor tracking service. These sites can only be seen as estimates of any site traffic levels, but they do seem to get the trend information right. Three sites from the same industry were selected for similar traffic levels. The graph axes were extended for a few months into the future and the traffic patterns for the two competitor sites from same period in the previous year was pasted onto the end of their traces for this year. The trace for that period from the site that had the worst pattern was pasted onto the end of our site's trace for the months to be predicted. This formed the baseline of our predicted traffic, in other words what we thought might happen if no promotional activity took place.
    A new predicted trace for our site was then created by applying a 10% per month increase on the baseline trace. This formed an upper trace becoming increasingly divergent from the baseline trace. 10% was a figure plucked from the air as a realistically achievable upper limit target. The result was a shaded area between the 10% and baseline curves that was roughly triangular into which our future traffic should fall.
    Finally a left hand y axis was created to show estimated Google Analytics visitor figures. Visitor figures from services like compete.com usually significantly under represent the true values, so using the known Analytics figures from this year as a reference, the Analytics estimates were calculated using their ratios to their corresponding compete.com figures.
    So what did this graph tell us? In three months time our site could be receiving the traffic figure mid way between the baseline and 10% traces. Which sounds impressive until you realise that the two traces represent the error on that figure, about 20%. Hardly accurate.
    What it really tells us is this: predicting the future is an inexact science, the further into the future we gaze, the greater the error with which we see it. In fact the graph may already be flawed at the point of its creation. Compete.com works on complete months and the Analytics figures so far this month are not as good as those for the last complete month might lead us to hope.
    As an exercise though it was still worth pursuing. It is always worth knowing what the web traffic cycles are in any industry and for all its inaccuracy this method still gives some idea of what we might expect. I just wouldn't stake my career on it, that's all.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

My compliments to the cook: SEO vs. SEM

    When I was a small child I attended a primary school in an English village. Summers were long and hot, there were jumpers for goalposts and our school meals were awful. They were the creations of the school cook, a rather nice lady whose culinary output was probably stunted by a poor budget and the dead hand of Ministry of Education dieticians. It was with great surprise then when I moved to secondary school that I found the meals were rather good, worth looking forward to in fact, for they were assembled not by a cook, but a chef. With a white hat and all, very impressive.
    My profession is usually referred to as search engine optimisation, often represented by the initialism SEO. You will rarely see either in my personal lexicon, instead I prefer search engine marketing.
    My reasons for this are twofold: to give a sense of the wider task involved in helping a web site to increase its visibility in the search engines through legitimate means and to differentiate myself from the work of the blackhats in the gutter of my industry. A few years ago while contracting as a quality rater for the large search engine you probably use daily I spent a lot of time following up keyword stuffed link farms, valueless spam blogs and hidden or misleading rubbish from people who definitely refer to themselves as being in the SEO business, so for me the distinction is an important one. I'm lucky enough now to work in-house at a large publishing business and need never ply my trade further afield, so I see no reason to associate myself with the term SEO.
    Looking at a Google Insights search comparing the two terms I find I'm at least not entirely alone. Search engine marketing is used about half as much as search engine optimisation(or optimization for a US search) but it's still a significant enough term for me to be able to describe myself thus without blank looks. Because as with the school catering staff of 1980s Oxfordshire, I'd rather be a chef than a cook.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

All blogs have to start somewhere

Keyword
  1. a word which acts as the key to a cipher or code
  2. a word or concept of great significance
Geek
  1. an unfashionable or socially inept person
  2. [usually with modifier] a knowledgeable and obsessive enthusiast
    This is obviously one of those cases when you wish you hadn't looked a word up in the dictionary. I'm a search engine specialist by trade, so "A knowledgable and obsessive enthusiast for words of great significance" doesn't sound too bad. I'm not so sure about "An unfashionable or socially inept person" though.
    I enjoy my job, and in doing it over the years I have frequently encountered words, phrases, techniques and bits of code that have made me think at a tangent to what I am being paid to do. These tangents sometimes stick around in my head for a while, and this blog represents a long-overdue outlet for them.