Web Design and Usability


Feb 2011

Is it possible to build a website with Facebook’s success?

Posted in Social Media, Web 2.0, Web Design and Usability | 0 Comments

Watching The Social Network on DVD the other night, my first experience of the award-winning portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg’s rise to fame and financial success at the head of Facebook, I knew once it had finished that I wanted to watch it again. Probably another ten times after that.

It wasn’t the glamour of success, the money, the vapid groupies, the slick, suited yes-men, that drew me into the film. It was watching him code. The first hour of that film was, in my opinion, by far the most satisfying. I wasn’t anywhere near as interested in the people surrounding Zuckerberg as the little tech-wizard himself. Misogynist, traitor, socially inept, self-centred – call him what you will, but ultimately the fact he created one of the most impressively addictive and comprehensive online experiences in his early twenties, becoming a billionaire in the process, demands respect.

His motivations for building the first version came from a dark, spiteful, sexist place. This can’t be denied – the blog he writes in the film is taken, word for word, from Zuckerberg’s own LiveJournal. But I couldn’t help but marvel at how fast he put the site together, how quickly other people cottoned on to what he was doing. Such an impressive mind, and one that locked onto an idea so firmly that it was impossible to even gain his attention until he needed cash for a server, immediately securing ownership of his site beyond the average hosting deal.

It made me think about the possibilities of sites that immediately start to generate a huge community. Of course, they’re all built on the same fundamental idea – people are nosy. We all want to know where you were, who you were with, and most importantly, what you thought about that particular event, even as we throw our own judgements around our subconscious. The ability to explore someone else’s life, someone who’s ever-so-slightly different to you, is so addictive to most internet users, most people in fact, that we had no hope of resisting Facebook.

But how do you build a website based around this idea? How do you find the one niche that will hit the sweet spot in hundreds of millions of people, like Facebook, or Twitter? There’s no more avenues for social media sites, not any more. Facebook and Twitter have the market sewn up, and the few variations on their ever-popular theme have already been designed and launched.

Sites that can engender conventions are always worth a go – Penny Arcade proved that if enough people form a community around your site, and the industry you commentate on respects your judgement, to some degree, getting them to put a ton of booths up at a huge venue and selling tickets is going to make a lot of money, regardless of whether the money goes into the bank accounts of the owners, the company, or a charity.

Have any of you ever tried to build up a website that makes money solely through the traffic generated by a loyal and ever-expanding community of users? You’ll need some real USPs to get it going, and it’s not going to be easy. In fact, at first, it’s going to be a nightmare to get someone to sign up unless they knew you prior to the site’s inception, and even that’s a chore, sometimes. But keep slogging away. You’d be surprised at how many people have seen major financial success via the web simply by never giving up. Now, either watch The Social Network to inspire yourself, or don’t, and then go be one of those people. I wish you the very best of luck.

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Feb 2011

SEO with humour – the Oatmeal.

Posted in Online PR, SEO, Viral Marketing, Web Design and Usability | 1 Comment »

Out in the wild digital wilderness that is the internet, there reside a wide variety of websites. Some are funny, some are serious, some appropriate, some not so, and of course, only a select few are huge. For a few it’s a phase – fad sites that will fade in time. But for most, they are content to suck in millions of hits per month, and of course they’re never going to die down due to the colossal communities that have built up behind them.

Here’s a video of Matthew Inman, owner and sole staff member at The Oatmeal (and also the sole creator of Mingle.com, one of the biggest dating websites in the USA), a site devoted to hilarious infographics about a variety of frustrations he comes across in life and thinks others may identify with, making a presentation to a conference about how to gain five million unique visitors a month. Enjoy it – it’s informative and if anything, hysterically funny.

Now, after you’ve recovered, think about what he said. You may need to watch the video again, his infographics are so funny it’s difficult to focus on what he’s saying, most of the time. But his point is a valid one – if you’re not writing, drawing, talking or even singing about a subject your audience can identify with, whether they’re laughing, crying or nodding seriously – then you’re going to fail at generating the ideal amount of traffic.

What Matthew does is simple. He finds an idea (the ever-updating iPhone model problem, for example), makes a short comic-infographic about it, then posts it up. Of course, his take on the subject is unique and his drawings are instantly recognisable, so they tend to go viral – but with an important difference. Because his work is unique in style and look, it’s still attributed to his site even if the source is a viral recommendation to you, by a friend. The Oatmeal still gets mentioned, and even better, people type in “the oatmeal”, find him on Google, and search a considerable portion of his site.

Bounce rates, in theory, should be lower when you’re hunting for a site you want to learn more about. Sure, you’re always going to land on the homepage, and while that makes no difference to you, the HLD (homepage linking domains) of that site will skyrocket if you decide it’s worth the link from your own domain to theirs. However, the disadvantage to this predictably lies in the fact that the owner/webmaster won’t know where people are talking about it, short of an ultra-delayed notification as Google Alerts slowly catches up.

I’ve got a fair few ideas for viral comedy sites like these and the absolutely mind-blowingly huge ICanHaz network. Looking at how well he’s done, it just might be worth giving it a shot – I’m sure anyone would be happy with a 5m-hits-a-month level of ad revenue, right? Enjoy the weekend!

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Jan 2011

Consumers do not like advertising algorithms.

Posted in Advertising, Business tactics, Social Media, Web 2.0, Web Design and Usability | 0 Comments

If you saw the recent article in the New York Times discussing the use of algorithms to generate adverts within your Facebook homepage or your Gmail inbox, I’m sure you’re aware of how this works. The algorithm takes your personal interests and uses them to create perfectly tailored adverts. To most people, that’s a smart way of ensuring that your advertising becomes more focused and targets people more likely to finish the load-see-browse process with an actual purchase.

To me, it’s an invasion of privacy. You’ve got to think logically about this – if you’re targeting games adverts towards people browsing game sites, that’s fine. But if I log into my social media homepage and I come across a load of adverts that tell me that some bit of code has read through my life and is now pushing product information into it, I’ll get pretty irate. The location of advertising is as important as the advert itself. If you billboard a concert, that’s fine. But paste the poster across someone’s bedroom window and they’re likely to call the police.

Privacy is a huge thing. Now that we live in a world where one man has administrative access to the personal details, conversations and darkest, most intimate secrets of some 500 million people and counting, that small place we can call both “online” and “private” has become even more crucial to us. To invade this space with discounts, product offers and movie trailers borders on telling people that their tastes are based on the tastes they wish to share with new friends.

Just because we have access to someone’s top ten favourite metal bands of 1989, doesn’t mean we should actually use that data for marketing purposes. Most of the things we’ve said to a friend, a partner or a relative on the internet have likely been seen by someone, and have definitely been logged. Cardinal rule of data? Nothing is ever completely deletable. But just because we’re given the option to lock ourselves off using viewing privileges (friends-only Facebook pages, for example) doesn’t mean we should have to do so.

Think about your image, say, as a small business selling indie videogames. If you stick a few ads up on albinoblacksheep, or Kongregate, you’re likely to be marketing very well. But the idea of someone listing Balloon Wars 9838 in a status post at some point on Facebook engendering a week-long stretch of Balloon Wars 9838 2: The Reckoning adverts should make you uncomfortable. If it doesn’t, think about your identity. You’re a small business. You’re one of the good guys. Don’t let that go because you want to shift another few copies of your latest release.

Keep in touch with your community, and advertise to them through paying attention. I once wrote an article on GamersGate for The Escapist, a digital distribution platform for videogames, a site that focuses on the indie credibility and deeper subtext of gaming. It might be worth a read if you want to learn how a small company has absolutely exploded because of their commitment to their fans. As I speak, and over the last 48 hours, their latest release, Magicka, has rocketed to the top of the Steam (another sales platform) charts. One of the reasons that happened is because CEO Frederik Wester is constantly twittering away and asking people to moan at him about bugs or link him to reviews, because he wants to read them. I know this from my personal experiences with him as an interview subject and an acquaintance.

Keep people happy, just don’t crowd them too much. It’s all too easy to stop logging in to a site so swamped with ads you’d swear you’d stumbled into the CGI back-catalogue for Bladerunner. You’ve been warned.

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Jan 2011

Are your website error messages entertaining enough?

Posted in Web 2.0, Web Design and Usability | 0 Comments

Occasionally I run across a really amusing 404 page. Often, it’s a cute mascot who’s sad because he or she can’t find the page. Occasionally it’s a real gem that’ll tell me I got eaten by a grue instead of finding the page. But there was one on WordPress I stumbled onto recently via the most unlikely of routes. Let me paint you a picture.

I’m working on a post, and once I’m done, I let my editor go fiddle about with it till it looks the way it should. However, I forget to close my own version of the page, and when I save (thinking I’m on the CMS for another site entirely, namely this one) it saves over his edits. All of them. A brief moment of guilt ensues, so we attempt to compare versions  to find his edits. Out of sheer curiosity (I’ve loved errors ever since zooming in too far in Paint Shop Pro caused an illegal-operation shutdown in Windows), I compared version X to version X.

The screen goes to white, and a small message types itself out on my screen:

Self-comparison detected.
Initiating infinite loop eschewal protocol.
Self destruct in… 3

And the screen goes black. Then, in an ominous but familiar green font, more text appears.

Wake up, Christos Reid…

The Matrix has you…

Follow the white rabbit.

Followed by a short message telling me not to let this happen again, and a link taking me back to the CMS.

What can you say to an error message like that? Personally, I called my entire team over and we watched it several times. There’s never any indication that WordPress admits doing this publicly, and if you already know what you’re looking for it’s only really possible to learn about it via Google. But it made my day, work-wise, and it’s something that other sites (the ed. notably lists Wikipedia as one that should really have a few Easter eggs by now) have yet to fully exploit.

So go compare versions – who knows, it might inspire you to create funnier error messages of your own.

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Sep 2010

Dealing with change

Posted in Web 2.0, Web Design and Usability | 0 Comments

Graph courtesy of blog.hubspot.com.

It’s not every day that big websites go through a major overhaul of their layout, and if you’ve seen IMDB‘s profile layout recently, it’s gone picture-heavy and facts-light until far down the page. This, personally speaking, is a nightmare. Finding crucial information becomes difficult, and it makes the website seem celebrity obsessed and Facebook-esque.

But what can we do? Kim Krause Berg argues over at searchengineland.com that major overhauls and changes to anything from layout to security can be a good thing, but I disagree. Let me grace your vision with a few hypothetical scenarios for large sites with many users, and what a major change to their site could do to the traffic, and even their revenue.

Business A is a leading online store of books, DVDs and music (no prizes for guessing what the “A” stands for…), and its layout has remained largely the same for around a decade. All of a sudden, it changes and looks like something you’d see on an iPhone, all slick scrolling widgets and little text. New, younger users will take to it more, but most will feel it feels less secure and less mature, and as a result begin to shop somewhere that focuses more on the product’s value than the aesthetics.
Business B is a site for a financial advice company that focuses on pensions and life insurance. Their site is updated from an old but functional, formal style into a Flash-based presentation that appeals to a younger audience (noticing a pattern, here?). Cue a lot of people who were happy with the pre-Web 2.0 style wondering what the point was.

And why the re-design? To get with the kids. From experience, unless you’re a rap star, you’re not going to be 18 and looking into a personal financial adviser – most clients are older, I’m reliably informed by my financial-adviser correspondent. So, who are you really marketing to? In addition, the 2012 Retail Distribution Review will only allow for fixed fees, so costs will likely grow to compensate for the loss of commission-based financial products.

Pointless site updates are numerous, and I think unless you can justify it in terms of performance statistics (accessibility, load times, bandwidth), then what’s the point? You’re putting a new cover on an old couch, and expecting it to be what convinces people to sit on it. But we all know once we’ve sat down, it’s still as hard as the old one and the same spring is still stabbing into your leg, so you stand up and walk off.

IMDB’s re-design was a sticking point for me simply because they took a mature, fountain-of-film-knowledge look, and turned it into a glorified poster and celebrity gallery for around 800 pixels in length. Why? To appeal to a generation who prefer to watch rather than read, and look rather than study.

We’re a generation of iPhone Apps, YouTube and Facebook, and sometimes we can’t even read unless it’s shown to us on a Kindle. IMDB’s “IMDB Pro” subscription seems a moot point on a site that seems to conform more now to teen layouts than actual film executives or actors using the site for networking and their online resume.

Kim also states that many people responded in a hostile manner to Sphinn’s removal of the voting system. Re-designs are sometimes needed, but to remove a vital part of user interaction on a community-driven aggregate site seems borderline suicidal. What would happen if Amazon removed their star-review system, or Digg decided that it would post what the staff thought was good?

Sometimes all you want is a new sofa, but before you know it you’ve bought a £3,200 chaise-longue and a set of French windows, and suddenly your mates don’t have movie nights at your house, any more. Choose your design decisions carefully, because loyal members are a stubborn and shallow bunch, and they’re also the people regularly throwing their wallets at you.

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Jul 2010

The true cost of a business’ social media integration

Posted in Business tactics, Online PR, Social Media, Web 2.0, Web Design and Usability | 0 Comments

Drifting through the web on a peaceful Monday lunchtime, I stumbled across possibly one of the most interesting and informative infographics I’ve seen. Created by Mashable, titled “Google’s Long History of Social Media Attempts” is an entertaining insight into one of the biggest web companies in the world, and its continued struggle for social media presence.

Reading down the years, a clear pattern emerges: Google have bought their way into more social media companies and invested in more projects than the majority of all businesses, globally. But for all their attempts to break the ice with the new generation of socially and digitally savvy teenagers and twentysomethings, something’s gone slightly awry. No one seems interested.

Now, for a company as large as Google, it seems almost absurd, doesn’t it? They’ve got millions, if not billions of dollars to spare on new projects, and everything they touch is hailed as a viable alternative before it’s even in alpha. However, putting successful projects such as Blogger to one side, Google are in a unique position – one of, if not the biggest web presence of any company in the world, but with all the social media success of a ten-year-old with a mobile dongle and a dream or two.

Google Me has been rumoured to be a direct competitor to Facebook. After severely underestimating the continued growth of the social-networking giant, Google now face a dilemma that is familiar to smaller companies like Bebo and the ever-falling-behind MySpace: how to get back into the face of the people.

It seems simple enough, but Google’s single greatest strength has simultaneously become its greatest weakness. The majority of internet searches go through Google’s famous search engine. But placing results for Google Me above Facebook, or even as sponsored links, could cause opinion to turn against Google and perceive the company as biased.

The same goes for small businesses – how to break into social media? If you’re a web company with Zuckerberg-esque aspirations, then you’ve got your work cut out. But you’ve still got a head-start over Google in terms of getting ranked higher and higher without it looking slightly too quick for the few cynics and conspiracy theorists.

You’ve also got, I’d wager, a smaller budget than the colossal entity that is Google. This also gives you an advantage – a smaller budget requires more careful planning, and less public humiliation when a big project falls through. An interesting look into Google’s inner workings tells many tales of failed projects and Google’s personal investment in the employees that push it further in the direction of global dominance of all online media.

If you’re a web-design company, maybe even just a solo entrepreneur, this seems daunting and, if anything, completely de-motivational. But never fear – you can network, you can join communities, and you can build up your web presence the way you want it to evolve. With countless failed projects behind their doors and a few too many beyond them, Google are now beginning to look like a company desperate to break into social media.

Your advantage comes from your unknown status. By lacking the stigma of a money-wasting corporate entity and focusing on one specific idea rather than anything with even the remotest prospect of serious monetisation (Jack of all trades, master of none), you can put forward ideas in a less critical environment. Public reaction, especially via the web, is crucial to the initial success and the build-up and expansion that follows.

But social media maintains its presence in society, a theory confirmed by The Social Network, the film about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s rather controversial history, that will debut later this year. Taking Facebook off the internet and into the cinemas places it in the hands of yet another audience, and the genius of it is that it was never officially commissioned or sanctioned by Facebook in any way whatsoever. Hopefully, Google will be in the front row taking notes along with web-design graduates.

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Jun 2010

Fidget with your widgets

Posted in Blogging, Business tactics, Social Media, Usability, Web 2.0, Web Design and Usability | 2 Comments »

A while ago, I was searching for a way to make some money with an older domain of mine. There were a ton of options, and all of them seemed good as money or traffic generators. Some stood out – everyone who’s ever looked at the online side of their business and thought “I could make this work for me” has looked into Google AdSense or affiliate programs. More recently, we’ve delved into an even better way to make your site the best possible one-stop-shop for visitors. These would be the Batman utility-belt of the consumer-savvy web-designer: the widget.

It does what?

Widgets are ingenious little fellows that you settle into the sidebar or various other digital playpens of your web-pages. They do all sorts of things, from providing lists of useful links and recent posts, to offering you DVDs based on the article you’re reading and allowing you to Tweet what you’ve just read. It’s a fascinating wealth of opportunity – do you offer Twitter functionality on the homepage, or on press-release pages? Do you allow users to add your CEO on Facebook? Do you need a meta/login widget? The choices are endless, and it’s all too tempting to get so many  that your website begins to look less like a coherent online representation of your products and services, and more like a scrapbook.

If you’re running your site through another site-building engine and built-in CMS, like WordPress and their .com and .org solutions, then you’re in luck – many widgets come as standard for .com. If you’ve opted for the self/externally-hosted .org option, there are countless communities across the web who make and upload their own, mostly for free. It’s as simple as installing a small bit of software on your computer – plug in the plug-in, and in no time at all you’ll have additional functions for new users.

It’s important to make sure you’re choosing the right ones – I know it’s tempting to get loads of widgets that let users do just about everything, but there’s a fine line between using a sharing plugin (digg and reddit, for example) and allowing users see which of their cousins are on Facebook right now. If you’re a social media company, the latter is fine, but if you’re an Independent Financial Advisor (IFA) with 30 years of industry experience, then this may not be the ideal representation of your attitude to online business presence. The widgets you use are as representative of the company’s tone and style as your choice of t-shirts vs. suits for big global conferences, and the wrong choice can make your business’ web design look slack or uncaring.

Let’s take an example – if you’re a site that does custom kitchen design, then there are a fair few ideal widgets that would come in handy. First, you could offer them a widget that displays the latest galleries you’ve uploaded to Flickr, as a means of offering them a “recent work” section that retains better functionality than an in-built gallery. They know Flickr, they may even use Flickr, and by applying the same brand name to your site as they do to their own lives, then you’re putting the business on a level that makes it seem more human and more appealing – key to ensuring your business spreads and evolves via word-of-mouth, if anything.

Tactical widget deployment

You’ve also got the option of placing them everywhere, and if not placing them in the correct sidebar, then why not taking it a step further, and creating your own? Of course, it requires programming, time, money, and a hundred other considerations – but then again, what doesn’t? It’s no more difficult than organising the business’ tax declarations when April rolls around, as you can contract it out to a programmer and designer in much the same way as Barry the accountant is contracted out to you to sort through the endless restaurant-based “team-building meetings” receipts on your expenses list for the year.

Of course, then there’s the various options that go with that – do you make a WordPress widget? One for all websites? One for the iPhone (an App, strictly speaking, but we’ll discuss those next week) or the Mac’s widget overlay? It’s a tough choice, but I’d again state that it depends on your business. Personally, if I ran an investment firm, I’d want an iPhone-compatible website that ran widgets allowing people to connect via LinkedIn, and possibly even one tracking the stock market and another crawling finance feeds from global papers and displaying them for people to scroll through as they explore the site. All of this would be free, easy to install and afterwards make the site, its design, and therefore the business look clued-in and web-savvy enough for the visitors to have faith in them as they make big investments in a new, scary, more-digital-than-ever environment.

It’s also worth considering their source. If you’re not aiming for commercialisation and want to remain professional, ensure the widgets are for functionality only, and have no secondary agenda. This rules out the Amazon Associates widgets, for one, which may be a slight dent in your plans for monetising a site. However, it also means that you’re not associating yourself needlessly with a vendor of goods that is world-renown, as any poor performance on their part is therefore tied to you – though only if you’re working in a private-sector, b2b environment. If you’re a big, outrageous blog about celebrities and big hair, then by all means, ensure Amazon’s recommendations widget has Hair: The Musical‘s DVD release displayed proudly on the sidebar. If you’re not, stick to news.

My personal pet hate is the ridiculous amounts of sharing widgets on the bottom of each page, as I feel most of them are so seldom used that their existence on the page is, for all intents and purposes, pointless. But that’s just me – everyone’s got their own tastes, and it’s easy to appreciate why they’re on the page when they’re well-chosen and well-placed. So if you’re appealing to your resident widget-fidgets, then go in guns blazing, and allow them to log how many bullets you’ve fired in that little box on the right-hand side of your site at the same time.

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Jun 2010

Use your head

Posted in Business tactics, Social Media, Usability, Web 2.0, Web Design and Usability | 0 Comments

It’s here; the final frontier. The Big One. The moment everyone’s been waiting for – Web 2.0. Hold on, what’s that? It’s already been and gone? Well, I’ll be damned. I guess my text-only, black-and-grey page with endless raw URLs and no .gif files is going to do down fairly badly. As are all the business sites who are still refusing to embrace the amazing impact web design can have on their traffic, business image and message in a world that’s all about the online.

It’s a tricky business, reorganising and redesigning a site. If it’s essentially an address and a floating logo, it’s no big deal to have it prettied up on the sly while you keep working away in the office. But if you’re always blogging and dealing with customers through it, it’s the equivalent of a White Van Man’s MOT – he can’t get work without the van, but the van can’t work without the MOT, and he can’t pay for the MOT without the work that comes from owning the van. You follow? Losing a site can be like losing a limb, even if it’s only for a week, but the benefits are huge. Everyone needs to do everything they can to stand out in the digital popularity contest that is 2010′s World Wide Web, and if you’re not flashing your widgets, you’re going down.

Pruning the hedges

First off, you’ve got to look at the aesthetic side of your website, and whether it’s really as good-looking as all its siblings in the same industry. If you’re an IFA and offering a bare-bones Blogspot domain as a means of communicating with your clients, sitting alongside your biggest competitor who’s fully Flash enabled and has Facebook and Twitter integrated into the footer, then it’s likely most people will gravitate to the one that allows them to play Asteroids while the site calculates their service fees. You’ve also got to factor in the realistic prospect of optimising your site for a multitude of different browsers, some of them no bigger than the iPhone’s resolution. Not everyone’s on dual-monitor setups; most are going to be on home laptops, netbooks, and smartphones, so think about this when you’re designing.

I know I’m promoting Flash and Apple’s wonder-phone (Flash doesn’t work on the iPhone, well done Steve Jobs) but the point still stands. There are a lot of people looking for multi-browser and even multi-platform sites becoming the norm, taking it as far as utilising internet campaigns in order to reach their goal. It’s long-term, sure, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take part. Look at the way most businesses are communicating via social networking – most of these operate through smartphones and are optimised for Macs, netbooks and Chrome (the SEO expert’s choice, in my opinion). Giving them the ability to double-check your figures against that press release you just tweeted is a seriously positive bit of functionality.

It’s also worth checking out what you can do with your GUI. If you’ve got a landing page full of adverts, sidebars and endless widgets, most people aren’t going to picture you as the most informative site in the world. If your website looks like this rather than this, then you’ve got a serious problem. In fact, make sure you click the first link – we’ll go forward from there.

From what we can tell, it’s a political news site, though why it’s called Haven Works is unclear. It’s also a complete mess; I asked a web designer friend of mine to take a look and make some suggestions. He stared at it for a few moments, and I turned to him as he sat, pensive, looking at the mess of HTML and horrible, clashing colours. “Strip it out and start again?”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s just not worth it.”

Some sites aren’t salvageable, and if yours looks anything like that monstrosity, let me offer some advice: delete. Wipe everything, get a basic WordPress site running as a temporary replacement, and seek help. Now, that probably gets a fair amount of traffic simply because of the amount of aggregate articles and traffic it absorbs, rather like the Blob. But it’s not something you’d visit unless you, like myself, are passing it around to your friends and loved ones as a “get a load of this” site, and that doesn’t rake in the customers.

Behind the scenes

When designing a website, a lot of people seem to forget it’s not just shoving a bunch of stuff together in MS Paint and clicking on it. A lot of code and very heavy maths can sometimes go into very slick websites, and programmers work alongside designers to make this happen (though most designers have a wealth of HTML and CSS skills at their disposal as an unofficial industry standard). Breadcrumb trails, clean source code and good loading times are all factors that are managed by people working in hosting, administration and coding, and not the people who’re putting that sun-glare effect on the side of your logo.

Breadcrumb trails are also seriously important – if you’re looking to optimise for social media, think about the length of your URL. www.news.com/18472 is great if you’re wanting people to fit it into a tiny Twitter window. However, it’s not very easy to just reel off verbally, and you might be better off with www.news.com/this-just-in instead. The difference? Not much. Most people use Tiny URL and similar online services when linking to your content anyway – even we do it, sometimes. The point of a clean breadcrumb trail is that it looks nicer. Having domain.com/category/subcategory/subsubcategory/article-929282822 is just sloppy and makes your business’ approach to its web presence look the same. However, if you clean that up and simply give each page its own page without a wealth of parent pages or categories, then you’re more likely to have people remember where they were, and continue from there, if they’ve forgotten to bookmark. Humans can remember “this just in” on a predictive-search browser like Google Chrome. They can’t remember an eight-digit number they saw last Thursday.

My point to you is this – there’s a lot that goes into coding a site, building it up and making it look good, and these are a few points a lot of people (like good old Haven Works) seem to miss. This isn’t the last you’ve heard from me on this topic, though, you’ve been warned. Next week I’ll be tackling widgets and sidebars, and heaven help anyone in social media who’s staring at this sentence with glazed-over eyes. Here’s a tip for popular web-design techniques – if you don’t know it – get it. If you don’t get it, the people who do and their users won’t get you.

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Jun 2010

Social media: a blessing, or a crutch?

Posted in Business tactics, Online PR, Social Media, Web 2.0, Web Design and Usability | 0 Comments

Anyone churning their way through SEO and social media news lately is likely to notice an increasing amount of posts and news about Twitter beginning to fail its users on a regular basis. Now, for a lot of people that’s a few regained hours that would usually be spent procrastinating in the office and writing 140-character poetry to loved ones, or, alternatively, Stephen Fry. But for companies who use Twitter as their only source of new-age contact with a consumer base that’s increasingly going digital, and socially digital at that, this could be rather disruptive, and something of a worrying topic to bring up at the next board meeting.

The question is simple: why are companies choosing one social media outlet and running with it to the degree that, if it were to collapse, they would unwittingly cut themselves off from their entire target market? If you’re a company who Tweets, whether as a group, a select team of social media enthusiasts or even someone in Marketing/PR dedicated to the medium, then are you not only wasting your potential by only using one outlet, but putting your entire social media-related business presence at risk as well?

Too little, too late

Let’s be honest – this isn’t the first time we’ve seen businesses face disasters on any scale caused by bad sites or bad software, though software’s definitely the more damaging. CNET once posted an insightful, though rather shudder-worthy post discussing the impact a software failure had on the financial stability of a major company. The bottom line was that the company itself was not held to account for the failings of its infrastructure and its reliance on one piece of software.

Now, this is arguable from both sides of the fence. Yes, even in terms of Twitter (a google search for “fail whale” will give you an idea of the realistic scale of issues with it), the company running the software or website that businesses operate through are ultimately responsible if said companies suffer when the software/site fails. Of course, if this happens with a social media site, there’s a sudden drop in updates and therefore traffic to the blog, which over a day or a week can be rebuilt, steadily. When it goes really wrong is when their blog crashes and they lose all previous posts, or Twitter dies and prevents them from being the first to break industry news – a devastating and horrifying prospect for any business seen to be regularly “on the ball” in terms of new developments in their industry or sub-sector.

However, at the same time, companies are too reliant on one system of doing things, and this largely evolves as a result of the monopoly trend in the digital battle for web dominance. Twitter is never going to be bested when it comes to micro-blogging, and the Microsoft Exchange Server system is an obvious choice if everyone in the office is running to and from conferences with nothing but a netbook and a smartphone to hand.  But to be present in social media circles and rely on only one site, be it Twitter, Facebook or otherwise, is foolish at best. You wouldn’t rely on one leg and never bother having another given the option to have both, right? So why cripple your business in the same manner?

My name is Company A Ltd, and I’m a digital dependoholic

The first step to solving problems like this is simply to spread out. If you’re only running a Twitter, set up a Facebook, even a Flickr account (you never know, allowing the press easy access to pictures of your award-winning team of staff has its benefits, and wastes less of your time when it comes to the news-hounds sniffing around for something to colour their article about Employee 49 with). The same goes for software – if you’re only using TweetDeck and your entire staff roster follows suit, get them to have other options installed (or re-introduce them to their browser, if it comes to it) to prepare for the event that TweetDeck suddenly crashes and the entire tech support department stage a four-week walkout strike. You’d be surprised at the fallibility of online support for software – if Twitter went down and every single account requested support, that’s (judging by January’s statistics) over 75 million angry users. Not a weekend job.

The main issue you have to consider is the support in place in the event of a system/site-wide crash. Let’s take the Twitter example and run a few numbers:

  • January 2010 number of Twitter users – 75,000,000.
  • Twitter crashes, globally, everyone makes a tech request.
  • Time taken to fill out forms on the part of the user, and deal with each request and give a form answer on the part of Twitter, even on auto reply: 10 seconds (thinking along the lines of writing “my twitter account doesn’t work, :( ” and hitting send, and the receipt page loading on a decent connection).
  • Total amount of time to deal with all 75 million requests:
  • 750,000,000 seconds
  • 12,000,000 minutes
  • 20,833.333 (recurring) hours
  • 8,680 days
  • 23.78 (rounded down, non-leap year) years.

Now, admittedly everyone would get their responses immediately, not one-by-one. But imagine the server capacity to respond, and take into account that almost 24 years of productivity has been lost – it’s enough to give any CEO a heart attack. But of course, if you tweet 50 times a day as a business PR attempt and twitter goes down for a day, that’s 50 tweets lost, and therefore 500 possible re-tweets – 550 tweets talking about your company lost, per day, the equivalent of one or two press releases. It’s a damaging thing to happen, and dependence like this means a lot of companies face a seriously blank afternoon if their means of doing business is lost. Scrooge would be ashamed – we should all still be keeping manual, physical records, but an over-reliance on digitised information, no need for filing cabinets (that new plant looks way better, anyway) and so-called “infallible” backup systems means we run the risk of losing everything.

Remember the Titanic? The “unsinkable” ship? Now apply that to MS Office, your email server, MSN, Facebook, Twitter, and even your phone network and the Royal Mail. Scary, right?

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