Archive for October, 2010

Thinking About SEO Makes Me Dizzy

Monday, October 18th, 2010

You know what I find confusing? Search engine optimization (SEO). Let me explain what that is in case you don’t already know:

A brief introduction to search engines.

Say you run a website that sells aprons. When you first publish your website online, it automatically gets indexed by search engines like Google and Bing, and then your website will show up in their search result pages (SERPs). So when someone punches “buy aprons online!” into Google, your website might come up. A couple of important factors here:

  • You want your website to show up near the top of the list.
  • Google wants to order the results it shows by how relevant they are.

These two “wants” don’t always line up. So, one day someone realized that by tweaking how content is organized online, you can change how it ranks in Google’s results. This is called SEO, since you are optimizing your website (the one that sells aprons) so that it looks as attractive as possible to search engines like Google.

(Of course, there are good and bad ways to do this. I’m not going to discuss ethics here. What I’m more interested in is simply making sense of it all.)

What does Google do?

Should Google assign more or less weight to sites that are trying harder to get noticed? Well, it depends. Remember that Google’s job, which it takes very seriously, is to rank the most relevant links first. So Google is constantly tweaking its algorithm to find better and more accurate ways to identify the best results for any given query.

You could almost say that Google is optimizing its search algorithm for finding the most relevant content.

So, who’s optimizing for who?

Now we have SEO-types that are optimizing apron sites so that they rank better in Google, and Google constantly optimizing its search algorithm to find the best apron sites. Since the criteria for what defines the most relevant apron site is set by Google, and constantly changing, SEO-types are always aiming for a moving target (and likewise for Google, since new websites, some of which are bound to be about aprons, pop up every day).

Part of me thinks that SEO and search algorithms should converge. If SEO-types are working to get pages better recognition and Google is working to recognize pages more easily, shouldn’t they someday bridge that gap from opposite sides? But then who really wins? The user is getting the best-optimized pages in Google’s best-optimized algorithm, which still might not be the most relevant matches — best-optimized is not guaranteed to be most relevant.

And what about Bing?

Bing has it’s own search algorithm, and it’s picking up a bit of market share. Are SEO-types going to start optimizing their pages specifically for Internet Explorer Bing? And how does Bing tweak it’s algorithm? If all the SEO-types are already optimizing for Google’s search anyway, wouldn’t it be in Bing’s best interest to aim for picking up pages matching that style of optimization?

Then what’s the end-game? Returning the same results as Google? I mean, if Google is working to return the best possible results and Bing is also trying to do that, aren’t they sort of shooting for the same goal? You can get into how Google and Bing might have different definitions of “best”, but is that really true? It’s the same users they’re fighting over, and they’re indexing the same content; logically there is only one truly ideal way to order their results.

The whole thing is a giant mess to me.

I have a lot of respect for what SEO-types do, and obviously I’m very thankful for the work search engines are doing to make my life easier, but what a fascinating and perplexing industry! I can’t really tell who’s on who’s side, and it seems like everything (the tactics, the goals, the products) is perpetually changing. Does anyone really understand how it all works?

What’s your take on all this? Am I the only one that finds SEO kind of crazy?

OCRI: Fall 2010 Kickoff

Friday, October 15th, 2010

The Value of a Project Kick-off

Welcome to the first in a series of posts about the work I’m doing this semester with OCRI. I’ll have an update like this every two weeks until the end of January, usually on Fridays (this one is a day late).

Every year, before we go into the classrooms to help students learn how to write working software, we have a big, group kick-off. The invite list is all-encompassing:

  • All the students from the class of each school we’re working with.
  • The teachers of the classes involved, and occasionally the schools’ principals.
  • All our industry mentors (that’s me).
  • Various representatives from OCRI (project coordinators).
  • Some of the program sponsors’ representatives (like IBM’s Marcellus Mindel)

It’s a pretty diverse group.

There are a few introductions, and usually a speaker (Marcellus gave a fantastic talk this time around about innovation in technology), and then we all get to work on our task for the day. It isn’t brainstorming ideas or programming lessons, and in fact it has nothing to do with software development: we all get together and take apart a bunch of old computers.

If this seems odd to you, you’re not alone. It took me a few times to realize why this is a really, really important part of the kick-off, but at this point, I think I’ve got it figured out. Taking apart computers together builds a sense of community between the mentors and the students. Specifically, there are a few reasons why this works really well:

It gets the students into a co-operative mindset. Some students we get have done this many times before, but the majority have never seen the inside of a computer. Since we only have about a dozen computers, we set the students in groups of four or five, and they tackle it together. This allows the experts to show off how much they know, and the newbies to learn a few valuable skills. Of course, the mentors are running around helping each group and explaining neat things, so none of the groups are on their own.

It lets the mentors gauge the students. By the end of the day, I have a pretty good idea of which students will be enthusiastic about the program and which might need a bit more of a push. I know which students are good candidates for helping out their peers, and which ones might need that help. All of this will be useful over the coming weeks as we move on to developing software.

It lets the students gauge the mentors. By choosing a task that the mentors are good at, we can show the students that we’re both knowledgeable and helpful. Even the hot-shot kid that has been building computers since he was 10 can’t explain to me what a CMOS battery is for, so it shows them that they all still have something to learn. And the students who don’t know a hard drive from a CPU find out that we’re there specifically to demystify whatever they don’t understand. This builds rapport, and positions the mentors as experts, which will be important at that first programming session in a few weeks.

Most of all, the kick-off really is a fun time, and it gets everyone fired up for the start of the program. After all, isn’t that what a kick-off is for? I already can’t wait for our first visit to the classroom next week.

Building an Audience with Feature Pieces

Monday, October 11th, 2010

Lately I’ve become a big fan of “feature” pieces. Let me give you a few examples to show you what I mean:

Every weekend, Outspoken Media posts their weekend coffee links. It’s a list of interesting one-off links from that week — links that have nothing to do with branding or SEO, the blog’s typical topics.

There are a couple of things I like about this. First, it gives Outspoken’s readers something to look forward to; every Saturday, there will be some neat links. This builds loyalty (people will keep coming back), and it’s predictable (since the same readers will tune in every week). Second, it’s probably a nice break for Outspoken’s full-time blogger. The weekend coffee links give Lisa a chance to be a bit more lax, and I bet those posts are pretty fun to write.

Of course, a regular piece doesn’t always have to be off-topic. Smashing Magazine’s monthly desktop wallpaper calendar series is right on-topic with what they do (promote and share good design). Still, it’s very effective; downloading a new calendar wallpaper is one of my top priorities at the start of each month — right up there with paying rent.

Similarly, posts in a series don’t necessarily need a predictable schedule. Take College Humor’s Prank War, for example. Sometimes the updates are over a year apart, but you’d better believe people are waiting for them. Obviously this won’t grant the same reliability bonus of a weekly or monthly feature, but it definitely builds dedicated fans. The people that love these videos really love them.

This is something I’m going to try to do a bit more of around here. In fact, starting this Friday, I’ll be doing a bi-weekly (every second Friday) update for what I’m doing this semester with OCRI. I’m interested to see how it goes — both how much I enjoy writing it, and what kind of a response it effects from you. Likewise, I’m going to play around with a few other infrequent series bits as I mentioned in last week’s one-year anniversary summary. It just feels like a fun thing to do, and I’m excited to see how it goes.

How do you feel about all this?

I haven’t really given much thought to feature pieces until very recently. Is this something you enjoy too? What are some of your favourites?

Twelve Months Past, Twelve Months Ahead

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of this blog. If you weren’t around in the beginning, you probably missed some cool posts. And if you were around in the beginning, you’ve probably forgetting about some cool posts. So here’s a recap of the past year’s highlights and my plans for the next twelve months:

The Highlights.

Did invites for Google Wave cause a slew of phishing attacks?

This was one of the first posts I wrote for the blog. It was based on the true story of how I fell for a (thankfully harmless) phishing scam, and some thoughts on phishing in general. It’s probably my favourite post from 2009.

Opera vs Reality

This post, from January 2010, is what I often describe as my favourite post. I’m a total browser-geek, so it was nice to let out a bunch of thoughts about what makes some browsers more successful than others. This was also the first post after I decided to commit to a weekly posting schedule.

Improving Performance in Flex and Scaling BlazeDS

This is my most popular post. It’s the first post I wrote for this blog that pulls in a consistent amount of Google traffic, and it’s easily the most niche piece I’ve ever written. Let that be a lesson to you other techie blog-newbs: specs sells.

The Breakfast Experiment

This was the first “experiment” post I wrote, where I tried to cook a full breakfast for myself every morning for a month. I’m planning on running more posts like this next year, because it was fun and I learned a lot from doing it. Stay tuned!

Make Every Day New Year’s Eve

This was the first post I wrote on the subject of motivation, and it’s right up there with that piece on Opera for the title of my favourite post all year. I really like my “voice” in the post, I came up with a great title, and hopefully a few people found it useful.

How to Promote a Mall in the year 2010

This is the first post I wrote that went some (extremely minor) degree of viral. It’s about a mall near my house, and how their marketing team is way, way better than the marketing team at every other mall in Ottawa. It was neat seeing my post shared on a couple of social networks, and this is another one that gets a bit of search traffic.

The Vegas Photo

This “post” triggered the highest single-day traffic burst in this blog’s short life. If you haven’t seen it already, you might want to check it out.

Find Yourself a Canary

It’s difficult to include such a recent post, because I haven’t had a whole lot of time to reflect on it. But it appears this story about my passive interactions with a coworker has resonated with a lot of people, so I thought it warranted inclusion. This post has made the most people tell me in person that they really liked it, which always makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

The Next Twelve Months.

I ended up being a bit busier than I expected in 2010 (most notably, I’m now married) so there were a few things I meant to do that got pushed back a bit. Here’s what I’m going to try to do before October 2011:

Write a short ebook.

I feel like I’ve picked up a lot of knowledge about blogging over the past year, and I thought it might be fun to wrap that up in a quick ebook and share it with the world. In particular, I’m thinking that other small-time bloggers that are just starting out might find something like that useful. And if they don’t, well, that’s ok too.

Run more “experiments”.

I thought the breakfast experiment was a lot of fun, and that I could turn it into an infrequent series where I commit to doing something a bit unusual for a while and let you know how it goes. Look for the second installment in a month or two.

Share more “hacks”.

The canary post was listed as a productivity hack, which it is. I have a bunch more of these that I can share (apparently I do a lot of little quirky things to get myself through the day). I might start doing them on the occasional Friday as quick half-posts — we’ll see how it goes.

Re-design the blog.

A confession: I’m not a horrible designer, and I’m a veritable wizard with html/css. When this blog launched, the theme I chose was just a placeholder until I got around to designing my own theme (which I am entirely capable of doing). I’ve been taking notes about ideas for months, but due to various other commitments, I never found time to put any of them into action. So, (officially) sometime in 2011, this blog is going to get a whole new look and feel.

Any feedback?

If I didn’t mention your favourite post in my summary, I would absolutely love to know what it is (and why). Please leave a comment. Similarly, if you would like to see more of something or have some other suggestion for the future, a comment would be a great way for you to share that with me.

Chosen Words

Monday, October 4th, 2010

I’ve done a lot of writing in my life, but I’ve never written anything quite like this.

The words I’ll speak tomorrow are words that I’ll remember forever. They must be perfect. There’s no room for fluff or big words, clichés or anything else that might be less true in fifty years than it is today. They must be timeless — clear, concise, honest, and true.

The lines must be crafted — tied together, with ideal weight and pause. Combining those deliberate, purposeful words that convey as closely as possible my feelings for her.

It’s a daunting task.

I’ve not spent a single day with her that I don’t want to relive, and knowing we’ll face whatever tomorrow brings as one is more than I could ever ask for.

But how to choose such words?

Well, that’s a silly question. These are words I’ve known all along; all I’ve left to do is write them down.

Written October first, twenty-ten.