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Get Unstuck in Web Development

I would love to say that I always know exactly what I’m doing, but then I would be lying. Even though I’ve been building web sites for over a decade, I still need to look things up and I still face challenges that I need help to overcome. Over the years, I’ve found a few resources that I consistently turn to when I need clarification or I’m stuck.

W3Schoolsw3schools

I know that there are some critics out there, but W3Schools was one of the first resources that I relied upon when I began learning HTML and CSS. It’s got a lot of decent tutorials for beginners, but the reason that I still rely upon it is the HTML and CSS references. W3Schools cultivates a list of all HTML elements and their available attributes as well as a list of all CSS properties and their possible values. It may not be the definitive source (that would be W3C), but those lists have proven to be very handy in a pinch.

Googlegoogle

I know that this seems like a no-brainer, but, like most people, when I encounter an issue that I need help with, I usually turn to Google first. Most of the time, a quick Google search will unearth the solution I need and I’ve even developed some strategies to help dig up those gems. I usually start with the language and then follow it up with the topic that I’m trying to research, such as “CSS clear fix,” “HTML5 section tag,” or “JS print window.”

CSS-Trickscsstricks

Often, when I’m searching for a CSS solution, I end up at CSS-Tricks, which I’ve come to highly revere over the last couple of years. Chris Coyier does a fantastic job providing solutions to common problems and outlining their pros and cons.

jQuery APIjqueryapi

I love jQuery’s API, because it’s incredibly robust and includes a ton of great examples. I can almost always find the answers I need just by reading the API entry for whatever function that I’m attempting to employ.

Stack Overflowstackoverflow

Chances are pretty darn good that just about any coding question that I come up with has already been asked and answered on Stack Overflow. Sometimes, Stack Overflow is incredibly helpful and steers me in the right direction and sometimes it’s not ,depending on the quality of the responses, but I love it because it gives developers an easy way to discuss a topic with a global community of peers.

Some other fine suggestions

While I don’t personally rely on these sites very often, I’m aware that many of my peers do. If you aren’t familiar with them, they may be worth checking out.

What resources to constantly rely upon?

Please, Stop Asking Me About SEO Secrets

Needless to say, I get A LOT of questions about Search Engine Optimization (SEO). They usually go something like this:

  • “How can I improve my site’s SEO?”
  • “How can I get my site listed #1 on Google?”
  • “I added Meta Keywords to my site. What else can I do to improve my ranking?”

Google logo

First, let me note that if by some chance you are still bothering with Meta Keywords, stop wasting your time. See this post from 5 years ago where Google explains how Meta Keywords are completely ignored in their search algorithms.

With that said, the reason that I’m tired of these questions is because they’re really hard to answer. These are BIG questions and the answers can be rather vague. The “problem” is that the most important aspect of SEO is good content.

In theory, if you write good content, you’ll create a good user experience. A good user experience will encourage users to visit your web site again or share their good experience with others. Sharing is huge, because it leads to more visitors and that’s where things can really balloon.

But remember, this is an on-going effort. It can work, but it usually takes a lot of time, effort, and trial and error. You need to understand your site and your audience really well. You need to continually monitor your site and tweak it to fit your users’ needs. You need to put out new content regularly to encourage return visits.

And that’s really only one part of it, because your web site is only one aspect of your web presence. Developing your social media presence has also become a critical aspect of SEO. In fact, they’ve dubbed the term Search Engine Marketing (SEM). You don’t need to sign up for every social network out there, but you do need to be aware of which networks your audience is using so you can engage them there, as well.

Another reason that I hate being asked about SEO is because Google’s search algorithm is perplexing. After designing and building web sites for a decade (and being an active Internet user for far longer), I still don’t understand exactly how Google ranks their results. There a lot of factors that Google considers when you conduct a search – your location, your search history, trending topics, and even your browser (just to name a few), and there’s no way to tell what the magic recipe is to ensure you come out on top.

Visible Google results for 'hockey'

Here’s a quick example: I live in Buffalo, NY and if I search for “hockey” right now , you might expect my hometown’s team, the Buffalo Sabres’ home page to be one of the top results, but it actually gets buried well down the page under what are (probably) less relevant results. And as you can see in the full screen shot, even if your site passes though Google’s rigorous gauntlet and comes out on page 1, you’ve still got to compete with all of the other stuff that gets displayed like paid placement ads, news, images, videos, and maps.

If you thought SEO would be easy, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Search engine optimization is hard and takes a lot of effort, so when you ask me “how to be #1,” don’t expect to get a silver bullet, expect to get some homework.

Demystifying Universal Analytics – Upgrading Your Account

Google has recently unveiled Universal Analytics, which I have outlined in another post. If you’re ready to check it out, here’s a quick walk-through of the  upgrade process:

Step 1: Upgrade Your Account

Log into your Google Analytics account and click on the Admin link in the header. Then, select the Property that you’d like to upgrade. If you have Edit privileges and Universal Analytics has been rolled out to your account, you’ll see “Universal Analytics Upgrade” as the top option in the Property column.

Click Universal Analytics Upgrade under Property

By clicking that option, you’ll be directed to a confirmation screen. Press the blue Transfer button to initiate the upgrade. Note: the transfer will take 24-48 hrs.

Confirm transfer to Universal Analytics

Once the transfer is complete, you’ll need to insert the new tracking code snippet onto your web site.

Step 2: Insert the Tracking Code

Although this step is technically optional, Google recommends that you insert the new tracking code snippet on your web site. The older tracking code snippet will continue to work for now, but you’ll get the best results with the new code.

Once, the transfer is complete, you will be able to get the new tracking code from the confirmation page or on the Tracking Code page as usual.

Get new tracking code

Copy tracking code snippet

Where does the code go?

The tracking code snippet needs to be present on every page of your web site, but implementing that will depend on your setup.

  • If you have access to your web site’s code, you can simply replace your existing tracking code snippet with the new one in the appropriate file(s).
  • If your site runs on a content management system, it may provide an interface where you can apply the new code. For example, if you have a hosted WordPress site, then you may have a plugin installed that  will allow you to paste in the new code.
  • Otherwise, you may need to contact your web site vendor to have it updated.

Attention QuantumCMS Admins:

You can update your Google Analytics tracking code on your own with a few easy steps.

  1. Log into QuantumCMS.
  2. Click the Settings option in the header and choose Site Configuration from the menu.
  3. On the following screen, click the Marketing tab. Clear out the Tracking Code field.
  4. Click on the Head HTML tab and paste the new tracking code into the text box.
  5. Press the Save button.

Paste code into QuantumCMS

Step 3: Verification

Once you’ve inserted the new code, I highly recommend that you log into Google Analytics and verify that the site is still being tracked.

The easiest way to do that is to access any of the Real-Time reports and then pull up the site in another browser tab. The report should show that at least one visitor is currently viewing the site.

Verify via Real-Time reporting

You can also view the status of your property in the Admin section. Click on the Admin link in the header. On the following page, select the appropriate Account and Property. Then, click on Tracking Info in the Property column, followed by Tracking Code.

Verify status

That’s it! Happy analyzing!

Demystifying Universal Analytics

Google Analytics Audience Overview reportGoogle recently unveiled Universal Analytics, the next version of their widely utilized web traffic analysis software. According to Google’s Help documentation, “Universal Analytics introduces a set of features that change the way data is collected and organized in your Google Analytics account, so you can get a better understanding of how visitors interact with your online content.”

Basically, Google has made a bunch of improvements under the hood so you get more accurate data and they’ve updated the interface so that your data is easier to understand and visualize. I’m sure that’s all great, but it also means that there are some differences that existing users will have to get used to, including changes to terminology (“Profiles” are now “Views”) and the organization of reports in the left menu.

In addition, existing users will need to upgrade each of their Properties to access all of the new features. Google also recommends that you upgrade your tracking code snippet, but that’s not technically required (yet).

We’re currently in the first phase of a four stage rollout plan. At this point, Universal Analytics is still considered to be in beta and the upgrade is completely optional, because some Analytics features are not yet available (especially those related to DoubleClick). If you are considering the upgrade, you should make sure you won’t lose any critical functionality first.

In addition, you may need to make additional code updates to comply with the new Universal Analytics syntax. In particular, the syntax for Event Tracking has changed and any instances on your site will need to be updated.

If you don’t wish to upgrade now, that’s okay, because Google will eventually upgrade your account for you. However, you’re still on the hook for updating the tracking code snippet on your web site, because the old snippets will be deprecated in the final phase of the rollout. According to Google, “data collected from the deprecated features will be processed for a minimum of 2 years” so you’ve got some time to update the code, but if you do nothing, your site tracking will eventually stop.

OK, ready to get started? Please see my post about how to upgrade your account.

Looking for more details? I found the following resources to be helpful while researching this topic:

  1. About Universal Analytics
  2. Upgrade to Universal Analytics
  3. Universal Analytics Upgrade Center

You Should Be Using Two-Factor Authentication. Everywhere.

We’re not very good with passwords, although we think we are. According to a recent study by security company CSID, 89% of us think we practice safe password routines. Unfortunately, 1 in 5 of us have had an online account compromised and yet only about half of us change our passwords more frequently than once per year. The best passwords typically utilize a combination of letters, numbers, and punctuation, and the longer they are the better (at least 8 characters). Only 6% of users have passwords that meet these criteria. Even worse, 60% of us reuse the same password for multiple sites. This is a recipe for disaster.

Here’s a quick scenario: Tommy has a forum account on a fan-made music site. The music forum that he visits regularly doesn’t maintain their security patches regularly, and a random hacker manages to hack into the site and steal his password. A simple web search reveals that Tommy works for Company X. Company X uses the Outlook web app, and wouldn’t you know it, Tommy uses the same password everywhere. Through a little trial and error, the hacker discovers that tommy@companyx.com is his work email, and boom, the hacker now has access to Tommy’s work email.

So what is two-factor authentication, and how does it solve this problem? Well, two-factor authentication (2FA) is a multi-stage method of verifying that you are who you say you are. Typically it’s a combination of something you know (a password), and something you have access to (a phone). Most commonly, the second factor of authentication will be a code that you will be sent through a text message or an automated phone call, and it’s only valid for a short period of time. This code will be entered on a secondary screen before you can have access to your account.

Unfortunately a lot of people don’t know what 2FA is – roughly 75% of people surveyed didn’t have a clue. It has also garnered a reputation for being a hassle, which is simply not the case. Most two-factor implementations will allow you to “register” a device as a “trusted device” for a period of time (typically ranging from a day to a month). I know what you’re probably thinking – what if I lose my phone? Then what? Well, the answer to that is “it depends.” Every two-factor implementation has different ways to handle account recovery in the event of a lost device, but this shouldn’t deter you from using 2FA – the benefits outweigh the risks by far.

So where are some common places you should start using two-factor authentication to protect your online accounts? Here’s a list:

  1. Google: Sends a 6 digit text message when you attempt to login from a new device. They also provide a Google Authenticator app for Android, iOS, and BlackBerry that can be used to obtain the second factor authentication codes.
  2. Apple: Sends you a 4-digit code via text message or Find My iPhone notifications when you attempt to log in from a new machine.
  3. Facebook: Sends you a 6-digit code via text message when you attempt to log in from a new machine.
  4. Twitter: Sends you a 6-digit code via text message when you attempt to log in from a new machine.
  5. PayPal: Sends you a 6-digit code via text message when you attempt to log in from a new machine.
  6. Microsoft Accounts: Sends you a 7-digit code via text message or email when you attempt to log in from a new machine.
  7. Yahoo! Mail: Sends you a 6-digit code via text message when you attempt to log in from a new machine.
  8. LinkedIn: Sends you a 6-digit code via text message when you attempt to log in from a new machine.
  9. WordPress: Utilizes the Google 2FA app.

For a more complete list of companies and products that support two-factor authentication, please review Evan Hahn’s list. Ask your local security or IT professional if your organization could benefit from using 2FA for email or work accounts. There are also ways to implement two-factor authentication into your own custom applications and web sites.

Passwords are becoming less secure all the time, and hackers are getting better at cracking them (check out the strength of your password). Enabling two-factor authentication provides an extra layer of security at a negligible cost. Protect your financial accounts, identity, and your career by using it wherever you can.

SEO Isn’t Just Google

This post originally appeared on my blog.

Back in October I had the pleasure of speaking at Buffalo’s first WordCamp for WordPress users. Before my presentation I made it a point to sit in on the other sessions that were in the same track as mine.

When discussing SEO, all the sessions I saw mentioned only Google. The Google logo appeared throughout, Google’s PageRank was discussed, Google search result screen captures were used, and so on.

The presenters for an SEO-specific session even went so far as to embed a video of Matt Cutts (from Google) in their presentation and declare that Matt Cutts stated that WordPress is the best platform for SEO.

For context, Matt Cutts appeared at a WordCamp in May, 2009 to discuss his search engine (Google) for an audience using a particular platform (WordPress). Matt even said, WordPress automatically solves a ton of SEO issues. Instead of doing it yourself, you selected WordPress (at about 3:15 in the video). He’s pitching his product to a particular audience to validate their technical decision (he’s just saying they don’t need to manually code these tweaks).

If while watching that video you heard Matt Cutts declare that WordPress is the best platform for SEO, then you are engaging in selection bias.

This same selection bias is also happening when developers work so hard to target Google and not any other search engines. If you convince yourself that Google is the only search engine because you don’t see other search engines in your logs, then perhaps you are the reason you don’t see those other search engines.

To provide context, this table shows the ratio of searches performed by different search engines in August 2012 in the United States. These are from comScore’s August 2012 U.S. Search Engine Rankings report.

Google Sites 66.4%
Microsoft Sites 15.9%
Yahoo! Sites 12.8%
Ask Network 3.2%
AOL, Inc. 1.7%

It’s easy to dismiss 16% when you don’t know how many searches that translates to.

More than 17 billion searches were performed in August 2012. Google ranked at the top (as expected) with 11.3 billion, followed by Microsoft sites (Bing) at 2.7 billion. The breakdown of individual searches per engine follows:

Google Sites 11,317,000,000
Microsoft Sites 2,710,000,000
Yahoo! Sites 2,177,000,000
Ask Network 550,000,000
AOL, Inc. 292,000,000

To put this another way, for every four (ok, just over) searches using Google, there is another search done in Bing. For every five searches using Google, there is another one done using Yahoo.

If your logs don’t reflect those ratios in search engines feeding your site, then you need to consider if you are focusing too hard on Google to the detriment of other search engines.

Now let’s take this out of the United States.

Considering Bing’s partnership with the Chinese search engine Baidu, contrasted with Google’s battles with the Chinese government, it might be a matter of time before Bing tops Google for Asian searches. Given the size of the Asian market (over half a billion users), if you do any business there it might warrant paying attention to both Baidu and Bing.

Related

The Subjective Internet

Author: Steven Raines  10/19/2011

When we choose which web sites, blogs, and newspapers to read and which television stations to watch, we are knowingly filtering the information we receive. But what we may not realize is the the explosion of personalization on the internet is doing the same thing. But how personalized are things really? More than you may think. Recent peer reviewed research shows that Google will return search results that vary from user to user by up to 64% (First Monday.) Or consider the difference between stories that appear in the “Most Recent” view of Facebook’s news feed as opposed to what it determines is “Top News” for you?

In a past interview with New Scientist magazine, Eli Pariser – board president of MoveOn.org, says that Facebook and Google now act in the same fashion as editors… highly personalized editors that reinforce what we already believe and limit our exposure to new ideas. His new book The Filter Bubble addresses the concerns around these issues and offers tips for busting your own filter bubble.

- Eli Pariser: Beware Online ‘Filter Bubbles’ TED Talk

Google Under the Magnifying Glass Again

Judiciary Committee

Author: Terri Swiatek 10/5/2011

There’s been a lot of scrutiny over corporate giant Google and its business practices as of late. The internet search and search-advertising company has been under fire from a number of competitors, spurring a series of Federal Trade Commission and European Union investigations over the past year. The most recent hearing, held 2 weeks ago, covered ‘The Power of Google: Serving Consumers or Threatening Competition?’   (View the full live webcast of the hearing above).

Testimony came from Google and its competitors, as well as the Senate Judiciary Committee, including: Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google Inc.;  Jeff Katz , CEO of Nextag; Jeremy Stoppelman, Co-Founder and CEO of Yelp Inc.; Thomas Barnett, Partner of Covington & Burling LLP; and Susan A. Creighton, Partner of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, PC.

The basic argument against Google is that, as its business interests have diversified over time, its market dominance in the search and search-advertising industries presents a serious conflict of interest. Competitors claim it’s no longer in Google’s financial interests to simply present the most relevant results to a user’s search query but to first present results that favor other Google properties and partners-where Google benefits from ad revenue. Google counters this charge, saying their goal is to always present the best answer to a search query, and if possible, to calculate and present that answer even if that means the consumer doesn’t need to click through to another site. For example, if someone searches “Macy’s,” Google’s studies indicate that, in most cases, the user is looking for a map with the location of a brick-and-mortar store; so the results page immediately displays a Google Places map. This is interesting because Google has changed, over time, from being a “GPS of the web” to a destination site itself.

The example below, recreated from one presented by Jeffrey Katz, illustrates how the relationships Google has with other businesses get preference and dominate the first half of a search results page. Paid ads are highlighted in green and Google Places and “related searches” are highlighted in red.

Washing Machine Query

I did my own, similar search query for “wedding dresses” and while three results did manage to surface to the top, the search results are still pretty Google-dominated.

Wedding Dresses Query

Google’s detractors also claim that the company has practiced improper scraping of content (Yelp’s accusations) and is using its expanding scale and volume to create unfair and anti-competitive barriers for its rivals (Microsoft’s complaints).

Interestingly enough, Jeffrey Katz (PDF) stated that 65% of Nextag’s search referrals come from Google and Jeremy Stoppleman (PDF) stated 75% of Yelp’s overall traffic came from Google, in some way. These highly successful companies are clearly benefiting from Google’s free organic listings as well as paid placement relationships, so why are they being so highly critical of Google’s business practices?

I think it’s pretty obvious that these companies trusted Google to act in a specific manner and designed critical parts of their business around those practices and technologies. These companies placed an enormous amount of trust in a single customer acquisition channel they had no real control over and now, when Google has decided to change the rules, they find themselves at a severe disadvantage. But it should be obvious that an unbalanced customer acquisition strategy can be a hindrance to any company’s sustainable growth; you wouldn’t build a stock portfolio and invest 75% of your money in just one company, would you?

In fact, Google changes the game a lot and has been doing so for awhile. According to Eric Schmidt (PDF), Google’s Executive Chairman, they change their ‘proprietary’ search algorithm slightly every 12 hours and did so over 500 times last year. When you’re playing on the home field and you happen to pay the referee’s salary, the question of a fair game is certainly debatable. But when have free markets ever been fair?

I do believe Google moved ahead of its competition because it was innovative and had the best results in the marketplace. The consumer chose Google more than its competitors, so they rose above the others. But while Google is clearly in the business of ranking, it has aggressively expanded into many other competitive areas and, while there are certainly alternative search and search-advertising companies out there, the issue comes down to scale. While Bing is Google’s biggest competitor in the US its 30% market share doesn’t even come close to Google’s 65% (ComScore). In the mobile market Google has 97% share and in the EU, Google takes the cake with 80% of regular search. At that scale it’s understandable that competitors and government entities would be concerned about reduced consumer choice, control of information, and stifling innovation. Google sits on the cusp of becoming a monopoly (Susan Creighton argues it’s not there quite yet (PDF)), which would bring the Sherman Act and other anti-trust laws into play.

Furthermore, Google’s apparent “bigness” obscures the fact that it lacks anything resembling monopoly power. Monopoly power has long been defined in the courts as the power to exclude competition or to control price . . . Google has neither power. – Susan Creighton

So end game, what can Google and the industry do to avoid intrusive and costly regulation of the internet search industry?

Over the past few years we’ve seen a trend that has the government stepping in to fix broken industries like banking and healthcare-do we really want it to end up going down that path? The panels were clearly looking to Google, and to its competitors, for suggestions of changes that could be made to avoid government interference or additional legislation and only a handful were offered. Could Google self-regulate or should there be some type of collective committee? Or would that be unfair to Google, a company that’s worked so hard to become a success? Should the government instigate more in-depth, private investigations to determine if Google is unfairly favoring the search results that make it the most money?

I don’t know about you but I certainly don’t want my search engine to become a utility; paying for a free-to-consumers service that works so well as is definitely isn’t an attractive option!

We Really Still Have to Debunk Bad SEO?

Author: Adrian Roselli  9/27/11

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: