Friday, August 26, 2011

We Really Still Have to Debunk Bad SEO?

Image of bottle of SEO snake oil.I've been doing this web thing from the start (sort of — I did not have a NeXT machine and a guy named Tim in my living room) and I've watched how people have clamored to have their web sites discovered on the web. As the web grew and search engines emerged, people started trying new ways to get listed in these new automated directories, and so began the scourge of the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) peddler.

The web magazine .Net posted what to me is a surprising article this week (surprising in that I thought we all knew this stuff): The top 10 SEO myths. I am going to recap them here, although you should go to the article itself for more detail and the full list of reader comments. Remember, these are myths, which means they are not true.

  1. Satisfaction, guaranteed;
  2. A high Google PageRank = high ranking;
  3. Endorsed by Google;
  4. Meta tag keywords matter;
  5. Cheat your way to the top;
  6. Keywords? Cram 'em in;
  7. Spending money on Google AdWords boosts your rankings;
  8. Land here;
  9. Set it and forget it;
  10. Rankings aren't the only fruit.

The problem here is that for those of us who know better, this is a list that could easily be ten years old (with a couple obvious exceptions, like the reference to AdWords). For those who don't know better or who haven't had the experience, this might be new stuff. For our clients, this is almost always new stuff and SEO snake oil salesmen capitalize on that lack of knowledge to sell false promises and packs of lies. One of my colleagues recently had to pull one of our clients back from the brink and his ongoing frustration is evident in his own retelling:

I have a client who recently ended an SEO engagement with another firm because they wouldn’t explain how they executed their strategies. Their response to his inquiry was to ask for $6,000 / month, up from $2,000 / month for the same work in two new keywords.

This kind of thing happens all the time. I recently ran into another SEO "guru" selling his wares by promising to keep a site's meta tags up-to-date through a monthly payment plan. When I explained that Google doesn't use meta tags in ranking, his response was that I was wrong. When I pointed him to a two-year-old official Google video where a Google representative explains that meta tags are not used, his response was to state that he believed Google still uses them because he sees results from his work. My client was smart enough to end that engagement, but not all are.

Because I cannot protect my clients in person all the time, I have tried to write materials to educate them. For our content management system, QuantumCMS, I have posted tips for our clients, sometimes as a reaction to an SEO salesman sniffing around and sometimes to try to head that off. A couple examples:

Along with these client-facing tips I sometimes get frustrated enough to write posts like this, trying to remind people that SEO is not some magical rocket surgery and that those who claim it is should be ignored. I've picked a couple you may read if you are so inclined:

And because I still have to cite this meta tags video far far too often, I figured I'd just re-embed it here:

Related

My ire doesn't stop at SEO self-proclaimed-gurus. I also think social media self-proclaimed-gurus are just the latest incarnation of that evil. Some examples:

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Followers, Likes and +1s as Meaningless as Hits

One of my un-fondest memories from my early days of web development was the constant client request for web site counters at the bottom of a new web site. Trying to explain to clients that showing a rather low number of visitors might not be something they want to brag about. And then I got the inevitable request to, like the sketchy used car dealer behind the warehouse, adjust the site counter ahead a few hundred thousand miles.

Today on the web services like Google Analytics, preceded by products like WebTrends, allow site owners to see the number of users visiting their sites without embarrassing themselves by displaying low numbers. These services have also allowed site owners to, for the most part, move past the goal of just getting hits on their sites and instead setting up better methods to track conversions — how many visits result in sales, or downloaded product, or filled out forms, or whatever the goal of the site is. Smart businesses aren't enticed by a count, they want to see numbers of qualified visitors.

So how do we not get this with social media?

I read an article earlier this week about a local firm doing good by helping local businesses to increase their Facebook "likes" (Buffalo Social Media Firm Focuses on Educating Local Clients). To be fair to the company being profiled, it's possible the writer just doesn't understand the business goals or what "educating clients" really means and did not provide sufficient context. When I see quotes like this I am more than a little surprised, given the boast of the article title:

"The key thing that a lot of people don't understand is it costs money if you want a 10,000 fan page. You've got to invest. You've got to run ads,” said Evanetski. Likes for the page have grown from around 450 before the ads launched to more than 1,700 by Sunday morning.

Nowhere does the article discuss just what those 1,700 fans actually mean for that business. Is the campaign over now, or are those fans being approached for more information, as sales opportunities, just for mining demographic data, or for something else? Educated clients should ultimately know that an increase in the number of people who follow / like / +1 them on a social media service in itself does not translate to anything. An educated client has a goal in mind and uses social media as one method to achieve that goal. If the goal is simply to garner fans and followers, then an opportunity is being missed.

I wrote about this very thing just a few days into 2010 — almost two years ago — and thought folks might catch on. It's worth a re-read: Lots of Twitter Followers Guarantees... Nothing. Seeing the reasons behind Newt Gingrich's absurdly high Twitter follower count (EXCLUSIVE: Twitter Analysis Vindicates Gingrich in Followers Scandal) should remind us all that such a high follower count is essentially meaningless, particularly if you've only cultivated followers who aren't prospects for your product or service.

If you are a business owner and are approached by firms offering to increase your Twitter follower count or Facebook likes (or other service-of-the-day verb-to-indicate-attention), just ask them, "Why?" The answer should include a tangible reference to your final goals for any marketing campaign. If it doesn't, then send them away.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Thoughts on Muse (Obvious Pun Avoided)

Muse logo.I downloaded and installed Adobe's new web design tool, Muse (code name) (also at Adobe Labs) out of morbid curiosity. Just like Adobe Edge (which refuses to launch), I had very little expectation that this would be a fully-developed sales-ready product. Instead of getting into extensive detail about the quality of its code, its accessibility support, and so on, I figured I'd do a very quick review of how I think it affects web developers.

The target audience is pretty clear from the Muse (code name) web site introduction:

Create websites as easily as you create layouts for print. You can design and publish original HTML pages to the latest web standards without writing code. Now in beta, Muse [(code name)] makes it a snap to produce unique, professional websites.

And this:

Design your pages
Focus on design rather than technology. Combine images and text with complete control, as flexibly and powerfully as you do in Adobe® InDesign®.

Right there is the gist of the product — enable print designers to convert their designs into web pages. Just like Photoshop would produce massive image slices to support Photoshop "designers," this product isn't about the code. With its integration of jQuery effects and Lightbox widgets, it seems almost like this would be a tool for a photographer to build a gallery site.

If you are a coder, or someone who cares about the code, this tool isn't for you. You will quickly see that the HTML is produces is not exactly structural or semantic, and that the piles of CSS and JavaScript aren't exactly necessary. Muse (code name) doesn't allow you to edit the HTML, so you still need to "publish" your work before you can edit it. If part of your coding process involves making your HTML meet accessibility standards or even just structure your content for good SEO, you will find it impossible.

If you are part of a web team, perhaps in an ad agency or interactive firm, then you will find that this tool doesn't allow you to collaborate well. If you get a favicon, for example, from another member of your team, Muse (code name) cannot import it; it only accepts PNG, GIF or JPG. If you receive a background image to drop into an element, Muse (code name) will crop the image, even increasing its dimensions to fill the element, regardless of your plan to allow more of the image to be revealed should the container change in size.

If you find yourself pasting HTML code from Google Maps or Twitter in order to embed third-party widgets on your site, you may find that is nigh impossible short of publishing your pages and then hacking through the HTML output. While I did not find a menu option to do that, even if it exists it will require a full "publish" step every time you want to tweak your embed code.

If you find yourself leaning on CSS techniques as simple as printable styles or as complex as media queries to support alternate display sizes, you will be disappointed. This tool is not intended to support liquid designs, adaptive layouts, document re-flow, or really anything related to alternate viewing.

If you support a web content management system, then for all the reasons above Muse (code name) is not a good fit. Just building a single page to use as a template will require a great deal of work to reformat the code to fit into most content management systems that are out there. Should you ever have to change the core template you either have to go back to Muse (code name) and repeat the process, or you will have to skip Muse (code name) for all future revisions.

In short, it comes down to these two key points:

  1. Muse (code name) has the potential to be a great tool for the single graphic designer interested in showing off his or her work without having to learn a technology outside of his/her knowledge area (nor worry about accessibility, standards, alternate displays, SEO, etc.);
  2. If you are a web developer (or web development firm), your job is not at risk. Muse (code name) is making no effort to replace you. If anything, it might keep you from getting fewer calls from people who might not be good clients anyway.

If you are looking for a pedantic review of the HTML output, I suspect plenty of others will cover that. Since Muse's (code name) target audience won't care, and anyone who does care will already know the issues just by playing around, it's not even worth getting into here. Besides, with 120,000 other people downloading Muse (code name) after the first day, I expect plenty of reviews of the markup will come.

Now to Examples!

These aren't intended to be open shots at Muse (code name), but instead I hope someone at Adobe can use them to help better it overall.

Photo of the Muse (code name) UI on my netbook.

This image shows how Muse (code name) looks on my netbook (I may have tweeted my frustration last night). As you can see, the menus are off the top of the screen along with every other useful feature. I was able to close the application thanks to standard keyboard shortcuts.

Screen shot of my sample page.

Using the default page size settings (960 pixels with a min-height of 500 pixels), this is the sample site I quickly cobbled together. I did not start with a design or goal other than throwing some elements on the page, so don't tell me my site isn't as awesome looking as it could be. Because it couldn't be awesomer.

What about the file output you ask? Here is the /css directory:

File name Size (bytes)
articles.css 5,106
bio.css 5,106
blog.css 5,106
books.css 5,106
contact.css 5,106
ie_articles.css 5,009
ie_bio.css 5,009
ie_blog.css 5,009
ie_books.css 5,009
ie_contact.css 5,009
ie_index.css 5,009
index.css 5,106
site_global.css 4,305

The duplicates are for IE support and you can expect to see all your content in every page twice as it relies on IE conditional comments to serve up one copy for IE9 and one copy for anything below IE9.

Here is the /scripts/0.9 directory:

File name Size (bytes)
jquery-1.4.4.min.js 78,766
jquery.museMenu.js 2,382
MuseUtils.js 9,317
SpryDOMUtils.js 14,604

Without those script files, those simple-looking menus on my example just don't render.

That background image I mentioned earlier? Muse (code name) re-cropped it and converted it to a PNG file, increasing both the dimensions and file size:

File name Size (bytes) Dimensions
Banner_bg.jpg 11,271 627 x 80 original image
master_U355_full.png 41,800 960 x 97 Muse (code name) -ified image

Related

Friday, August 12, 2011

Browsers as Wrestlers "Infographic"

CBS-funded image of browsers wrestling.

Earlier this week CBS News ran the above image on its site in the Tech Talk section (within the topic Wired for Women, which doesn't seem to have anything to do with women) under the article An infographic! If web browsers were wrestlers... As is common nowadays, any illustration with numbers and witty (or not-so-witty) accompanying images is being called an infographic, and this is no exception. I do think the title is a bit tongue-in-cheek and CBS knows that this image isn't exactly fact-based.

The firm CBS hired to develop the graphic ranked each browser by market share, innovation, flexibility and speed — all the important factors. I disagree, however, that these are the important factors. Innovation means different things to different users, for example. As a web developer, I might like new HTML5 support, but my dad might prefer bigger buttons and less clutter. I have a different set of factors that I think are far more important:

  1. Performance: How well the browser can render a page without choking, whether by slowing down or introducing image artifacts, or just crashing.
  2. Standards Support: With the constant revisions to the still-in-development CSS3 and HTML5 specifications, along with related specs, this is even more important given the moving targets.
  3. Ease of Use: This includes accessibility and usability. Can my mom use the browser without having to call me? On top of that, how about a power user, how easy to use is it for that audience?
  4. Install Base: This is more than just who has chosen to download it, but should include who is forced to use it by corporate policy, lack of technical knowledge, hardware limitations, or public access.

CBS gave each browser a chance to respond/defend itself, specifically Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer, Opera, Rockmelt, and Safari. Opera even took it a step further and wrote up a response on its blog, Speed, Innovation, and Flexibility in the Ring.

I found another image that I think more accurately reflects the state of the battle between browsers (it rightly ignores Rockmelt and portrays Internet Explorer appropriately):

Image of two kids fighting (Chrome and Firefox) while one eats glue (Internet Explorer).

Credit for the above image goes to Galit Weisberg, from The Shoze Blog. Now go to TechCrunch and tell MG Siegler that he stole the image.

Update August 25, 2011

Bit Rebels took an old illustration of browsers as celebrities, posted it, and claimed it as an infographic: If Web Browsers Were Celebrities [Infographic]. It may be time for a web-wide infographic intervention.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Another Piece Claiming Social Media Makes You Dumber

Social media iconsI had started a post last night about a recent report that Facebook and Twitter (and probably all social media based on how it's worded) is generally dumbing people down. Then I watched and read reports of the London riots and saw media outlets in the United States, as well as those in England, talk about how technology and social media are inciting violence. I then recalled all the instances of news media mis-reporting based on bogus Twitter tips (among other social-media-based sources) and am starting to come to the conclusion that social media is dumbing down the media instead.

But since that thought process itself can drag me into hours of research to bolster my claims, I'm just going to take the media's way out and claim it as true while I instead focus on the original purpose of my post, with a little bit of London riots for good measure.

The Original Post

Last week The Daily Mail posted the article "Facebook and Twitter are creating a vain generation of self-obsessed people with child-like need for feedback, warns top scientist" with the following introductory paragraph:

Facebook and Twitter have created a generation obsessed with themselves, who have short attention spans and a childlike desire for constant feedback on their lives, a top scientist believes.

The opinion is attributed to Baroness Greenfield, former director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain (considered one of Britain’s oldest and most venerable scientific institutions), professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, and who once referred to Stephen Hawking as Taliban-like and later defended it by saying What is dangerous...is to make sweeping assertions about a whole category of academia. It might be fair to say that she is making sweeping assertions about a whole category of social interaction. That the article provides no links to scientific papers or studies to support her claims in any way further demonstrates that there is nothing here beyond both Baroness Greenfield's and The Daily Mail's disdain for social media.

Had the paper or Baroness stated that Twitter and Facebook seem to appeal to the personalities she cites, then it's a different story. I even agree with that sentiment, and at the beginning of this year wrote about Twitter As Passive-Aggressive Enabler. I don't, however, say that Twitter causes that behavior. That behavior is extant, social media just allows people to continue their bad behaviors.

Almost two years ago I remember The Telegraph running the piece "Facebook 'enhances intelligence' but Twitter 'diminishes it', claims psychologist." Major news outlets across the world picked it up, but they all failed to fact check it. Only when directly asked if the researcher had any evidence did she admit there was no study, it was just her opinion. It annoyed me enough to write Facebook Doesn't Make You Smarter, Rigorous Research Does where I discuss essentially the same thing I am discussing here — lack of any research or application of the scientific method to back up a claim otherwise clearly rooted in personal bias.

Related

London Riots and Mis-Reporting

About those London riots, I'm going to keep this brief because I think the facts speak for themselves. Note this tweet:

I hear Tottenham's going coco-bananas right now. Watch me roll up with a spud gun :|

This is how The Daily Mail reported it:

Ashley AR tweeted: 'I hear Tottenham's going coco-bananas right now. Watch me roll.'

This was in an article reporting on the riots and using Tweets and posts from an internet forum to demonstrate the chaos. Except they misquoted that tweet. Which should make every other quote in that article suspect. Which might account for why the article was later edited to remove them, with no acknowledgment of the misquote. This screen shot shows how the article looked before editing (screen shot stolen from Simon Willison):

Screen shot of original article.

I'm starting to think The Daily Mail doesn't like Twitter.

Related

Monday, August 8, 2011

More on HTML5 as DHTML

HTML5 logo mocked up as DHTML logo.Guns don't kill people, the bullets do that (unless you pistol-whip someone to death, which means you probably ran out of bullets). Similarly HTML5, JavaScript, CSS and even Flash aren't dangerous on their own, but in the wrong hands and with the wrong motives they can do harm.

I wrote a post almost a couple weeks ago, Don't Let HTML5 Become the New DHTML, where I compared HTML5 with DHTML. I think it is an apt analogy still. Since then I have seen what I think is a spike in posts from people decrying poor development practices, ultimately resulting in whiz-bang sites that claim to be HTML5 but are really just platforms to demonstrate cool features for reasons that have no merit beyond "cool factor."

I have a theory on why there is a recent uptick in this general theme — Adobe released Edge, its tool to help enable HTML5 / CSS3 / JavaScript animation-style development and (wrongly) considered to be a replacement for Flash. As people downloaded it and played around with it, a trend started to emerge. People were looking at the code Edge generated and realizing it was all just div soup (Why has Edge gone with div-based animation over canvas and SVG?). I am one of the many people who downloaded and installed this pre-beta so that I could see what it produced. I was not so lucky to get it working:

I had planned to write a blog post about Adobe Edge, but all it did was crash on me. That doesn't make for a long post.

I suspect once people saw this code, from software which otherwise is not production-ready (or beta-ready, as Adobe claims), the ideas of HTML5 as a Flash killer coupled with its tag soup output rolled through the heads of lots of people, and so began the posts. I have collected some here:

I think comparing HTML5 to Flash is a mistake. They are not the same. Flash is and always has been a proprietary tool built to enable features otherwise unavailable in standard HTML, CSS and JavaScript development while offering a consistent experience for users.

DHTML, however, was just a fake-brand for HTML4, CSS2 and JavaScript. People now use HTML5 to refer to HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript, along with some other standards-based technologies. I think the parallels are obvious.

Update: August 11, 2011

Web 2.0 was another one of those marketing terms which encapsulated different things to different people. Now its demise is predicted: The death of Web 2.0 is nigh….

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Are Patents Killing HTML5 Video?

WebM logoYou may recall from my post in February, WebM, H.264 Debate Still Going, that the H.264 video codec is considered patent-encumbered (which resulted in its dismissal from the HTML5 specification) and Google has argued that its own WebM / VP8 codec is made up of patents it owns, releasing it as royalty-free.

We all had to know it wouldn't be that simple. MPEG-LA, the licensing entity for multimedia codecs such as H.264, put out a call for patents related to VP8, the underlying technology in WebM, back on February 11, leaving it open for a month. Ostensibly MPEG-LA cast its wide net in the hopes that it could find existing patents that it can then use (perhaps by forming a patent pool or preparing for a lawsuit) to lay claim to rights over technology in VP8.

In April, Google started its own call for patent holders and formed the WebM Community Cross-License (CCL) initiative. Its description from its site:

The WebM Community Cross-License (CCL) initiative enables the web community to further support the WebM Project. Google, Matroska and the Xiph.Org Foundation make the various components of WebM openly available on royalty-free terms. By joining the CCL, member organizations likewise agree to license patents they may have that are essential to WebM technologies to other members of the CCL.

With no official announcement, MPEG-LA revealed in an interview (WebM Patent Fight Ahead for Google?) that twelve parties had come forward with patents they felt were covered in VP8. If those claims hold up then MPEG-LA's next step is to create a patent pool, which allows even more patents and patent holders to be added to the mix. It also means Google will be faced with either paying for licensing from that patent pool or defending itself in a lawsuit. Given Google's US $105 million outlay to acquire the VP8 codec (via its acquisition of On2) already, you can bet some number crunching will take place to evaluate the value of either approach.

MPEG-LA most likely doesn't care whether or not VP8 wins over H.264. All MPEG-LA is interested in is getting its licensing fees from both of them. While MPEG-LA doesn't necessarily fit the model of a standard patent troll (it isn't located in Texas), if you read my post from yesterday, A Patent Trolling Primer, you can see some parallels.

These are posts I have written both about patent abuse and the H.264 vs. WebM debate. Instead of a recap of each here, you can get more history in these posts:

Back in January, Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG, a working group of ISO/IEC and not related to MPEG-LA) issued a statement that it plans to move forward with a royalty-free video encoding standard. Sadly, I don't have any news on its progress. If you have any, please comment below and let me know.

Other Media Types

As proponents of Ogg Vorbis will tell you on the We Want Ogg site, while they claim that it is a royalty-free and unpatented audio format, they cannot seem to get either Apple or Microsoft to support it in their browsers — even though the code to embed it natively in the browser is available (a better solution than a plug-in). In this case, owning patents related to audio technologies as a browser maker is motivation to not support an open format.

Google's WebP image format, which uses some of the still-image compression tricks from VP8, isn't being supported in Mozilla (Mozilla rejects WebP image format, Google adds it to Picasa). While patent issues around VP8 may certainly creep into WebP, in this case the argument to refuse support for the image format comes down to its lack of clear benefits to other image formats. If VP8 compression formats become patent-encumbered then you can bet this new format will die on the vine.

Related

Update: March 7, 2013

Today on Google's WebM blog:

Today Google Inc. and MPEG LA, LLC announced agreements that will result in MPEG LA ending its efforts to form a VP8 patent pool.

There is no indication of how much money changed hands.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Patent Trolling Primer

Seal of the USPTOThe timing on my post yesterday (More Frivolous Patents) was pretty good. The patent trolling issues have been getting some coverage lately in more mainstream press (not just in legal or industry press) which has the potential to actually get noticed by someone (or someones) who can make a change.

Unfortunately, some people seem to think that patent reform is already in progress via the America Invents Act (S. 23 & H.R. 1249), which has so far only passed the House. The summary of the bill from OpenCongress.org:

Changes the patent application system from one that awards patents to the first person to invent something to a system that awards the first person to file a patent application on an invention. It would also allow for more public feedback on applications in order to prevent bad patents, establish new rules for challenging patents, guarantee that fees from patent applications can be retained by the patent office, and more.

Not being a lawyer, I have only the wisdom of the Internet on which to rely when it comes to interpreting the legalese of the bill. The bulk of what I have found is focused more on the first-to-file changes of the law. From CNN Money (Patent reform is finally on its way, June 24, 2011):

At the core of both bills is a transition of the U.S. patent law from a "first to invent" to a "first to file" system. That would give the patent to the first applicant, rather than the first inventor. It's the standard most of the rest of the world uses, since it prevents inventors from coming out of the woodwork and and laying claim to a patent.

The CNN article also says that the bill is designed to keep patent battles out of the courts and links to a 2008 article about a trampoline safety net inventor (Is your idea safe?).This bill, however, does not address the overwhelming surge of patent trolling in recent years. In addition, there are a lot of people who don't care for this bill, as a Google search will show.

Last week the radio program This American Life ran an episode titled "When Patents Attack!" detailing its experience with just one patent troll, Intellectual Ventures (who is against the America Invents Act). I have embedded the (too large to fit comfortably in my blog) audio player for the episode. It's perhaps a bit comedic, but it is worth a listen if patent trolling is new to you, especially if you aren't technically inclined.

To tear a piece out of the story out and provide some context about how broken the patent system is, enjoy this example of chaos:

Crawford's patent was for "an online backup system." Another patent from the same time was for "efficiently backing up files using multiple computer systems." Yet another was for "mirroring data in a remote data storage system."

And then there were three different patents with three different patent numbers but that all had the same title: "System and method for backing up computer files over a wide area computer network."

Martin says about 30 percent of U.S. patents are essentially on things that have already been invented. In 2000, for example, the patent office granted a patent on making toast — patent number 6080436, "Bread Refreshing Method."

SFGate takes it a bit further in its piece "Who Does Patent-Trading Firm Intellectual Ventures Work For, Anyway?"

What NPR does not get into, however, is the fact that Intellectual Ventures is backed by many of the biggest and most powerful companies in technology, including Amazon, Apple, Cisco, eBay, Google, Nokia, Sony, Yahoo, and — of course — Microsoft.

[...]

These companies are believed to have invested in Intellectual Ventures in part to make sure they have access to its huge patent trove. (Other investors include universities and investment firms.)

The Economist posted its own take on the chaos today, spurred by the piece from This American Life in the article Patents against prosperity. The author makes the case for patent trolling stifling the American economy:

Nevertheless, it remains that America is the world's leader in technical invention, and continues to attract many of the world's most inventive minds. That's why it is so important that America remain especially conducive to innovation. And that's why America's intellectual-property system is a travesty which threatens the wealth and welfare of the whole world.

Some of the commentors on the story make interesting arguments, but nobody denies that the current state of the patent system is broken.

Regardless of your source, they all tend agree that patent trolls are a real concern to businesses, with the risk of litigation ever-present. This has created the new business model of paying into patent companies as a form of protection money, whether by partnering up (such as the Nortel patent bidding) or paying one off.

Yesterday I talked about more companies on the web getting sued, tomorrow (if time allows) I plan to discuss the new MPEG-LA patent pool.