Valentine’s Day Messages

I Heart U Cursor

I Heart U CursorSo my man created this demo of his coding skills for Valentine’s Day: interfacemaster.ca/love -> check it out! Click and drag anywhere on the screen (or tap and drag if you’re on a mobile device) and play! It’s so much fun. If you want to send a custom message to your love for Valentine’s Day, click the heart in the top right corner, enter your custom message, and share the link that’s provided! Super simple. Have fun!

orage snowboard clothing

I finally broke down and bought a really cool Orage snowboarding suit. I’d been eyeing up the Byng jacket all winter, but I was undecided on which colour, and couldn’t find a price I was willing to pay.

All of a sudden one day, my searches for this jacket proved boundlessly fruitful. I pulled up media about the jacket I hadn’t been able to find before, and that gave it so much more dimension than is available on the Orage website.

First, I came across a product shot of the jacket actually being worn, outside, in the snow, on a UK site of all places: Snow and Rock. It looks amazing – so much better than in the photos. In fact, it looks so good I decided on the white right then and there (previously I’d been leaning more towards the red one). The product’s description on that website also convinced me this was the jacket I wanted to get.

However, I didn’t want to buy it from the UK. While my parents have a house there, they’re not currently living there, and all in all it just doesn’t make sense.

I continued my searches and very happily stumbled upon a video exploration of the jacket at some product show. While the lighting makes it seem a lot more yellow than it is, it gives you a great idea of all the features it possesses. It also reinforced my colour combination decision: the brown pants on the UK site’s photo look a whole lot better with the white jacket, than the white pants shown in the video.

Now I was more than sold: but I had to find an affordable retailer, somewhere on this continent. I finally came to ColoradoFreeRide.com, saw that was the lowest price this jacket was available anywhere, and decided to get it from there. Still unsure about exactly which pants to get – although fairly certain of the colour I wanted – I emailed the site’s owner, Greg, asking advice on the products assuming he’d have some knowledge of his inventory. He did, and I got a response within 24 hours. In fact he was the most helpful online retailer I’ve been in contact with in a long while. And at the lowest price available online, I really couldn’t have hoped for more.

They finally arrived last week, and they look great on me. They fit perfectly… the colour’s not exactly what I was expecting; in fact it’s more green than gold, brown or white. But in any case, the snow suit looks great, and I’m hoping for the chance to really use them to their fullest potential next weekend… but more on that later, if it happens.

cataloguing books

A service has emerged called LibraryThing. For free, you can list up to 200 titles from your own private library. For a fee, you can join the site and list as many books as you like – from your library, your wishlist, ones you want to read but not own etc.

Apart from the fact that I cannot imagine having enough free time to do such a thing with all the titles I feel those various things about, I find that a combination of my Amazon.ca wishlist (woohoo, sneaky ploy) and my wonderful memory does a good enough job of a) keeping track of the books I want to own, b) keeping track of the books I want to read and c) what I thought of the books I have read.

Another tool I used was the Toronto Public Library’s online My List. I mistakenly trusted this tool to retain the information I entered into it, and therefore moved a whole whack of titles from my Amazon.ca wishlist (those I did not wish to purchase, but wanted to read at some point). Much to my dismay months later, when I tried to retrieve the list, I saw it was blank.

Horrified at having lost a huge chunk of my reading list, and unable to remember most of the titles, I fired off an angry email to tech support at the TPL. They kindly informed me that no, their servers do not retain those lists after a certain (short) period of time (I think two weeks) and do not retain backups either. My reply informed them that they should consider their users and either retain that information or inform users that the information will be discarded within that time frame. In this day of information architecture, I’m actually surprised that such a terrible mistake was made on the part of the developers of the system. In fact, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.

In any case, what I have recently found effective is to enter the book I want to read into the library’s holds system, and place a hold on it. I don’t mind that I end up in a queue of sometimes up to 600 people. I’ll wait that long, because I don’t have time to read 15 books at the same time, and it’s kind of fun to wait and see when it’ll pop up (this was actually recently mentioned on BlogTo).

It’s fairly good. But I’m finding that, that added to the books I purchase and the ones I get occasionally (more frequently these days) through work for free (I work in the publishing industry, though not at a publishing company), that my pile of “books to read” is getting awfully high. And not necessarily with books I want to keep either (those free ones…).

I’ve been trying to get rid of the ones I’ve read and don’t wish to keep, but it’s difficult. And that, my friends, is a rant for another day, so I’ll wrap this up by saying – stick to your Amazon.ca wishlist, and hey, if you happen to have a cool online library system with a holds feature, then totally use it when you don’t think you want to own a book forever. In fact, I’m going to start using it to test-drive any book, then buy really nice copies of the ones I enjoyed for my own library. Except for Charles Dickens. I’ll buy any of his without having read them first.

days go by featured on blogto

My blog was recently featured on BlogTo.com’s Blogerati files. Very exciting! I want to thank Lily from BlogTo for contacting me and asking if I’d like to have it up there. It’s been great getting the extra hits and I think my site is showing up more often in search engine results (usually for Toronto-based events) from all of the activity. Quite cool!

the importance of your website’s content

I’ve noticed a bit of a trend lately in many of the web pages that appear; get excited about creating a website, have it designed, and… leave it empty.

This is doing your business no good. Having a website is a great idea; leaving your page to then sit without content is not a great idea. In fact, on top of harming your company’s image, it’s probably making it more difficult for you to come up in search results.

What counts as content?

Content is not just pretty photographs or illustrations. It’s not the menu, or the three-line sentence that your index page (the first page people see on your website) displays, nor is it your contact info. Content is meaningful, searchable, well-written text – peppered with a few images – that describes what your company is about, how it began, its mission statement, the products or services you sell, provides news or other form of updates on your progress as a company and urges your visitors to contact you or buy from you.

What meaningful content can do for you

All of this is important when your site is being visited by new customers that do not know you personally, and are interested in what you offer. It is important because including fleshed-out text that outlines the above will:

  • create a directed vision of your company and the person/people behind it (ie: your brand);
  • engender trust and goodwill within the potential customer;
  • through the above, show visitors that your company knows what it is doing, is trustworthy and can, in fact, provide services and products to solve the problems they are seeking solutions for when they find your site.

You may be thinking, I have a targeted audience and usually know the people who visit my site – how can this apply to me? Remember that your brand on the web is now just as important as your brand in person. Showing a commitment to your website by adding new, relevant content on a regular basis will show that you are organised and dedicated to your business. This can do nothing but inspire confidence in potential customers.

Content every website should have

The typical content pages I would recommend setting up are:

  • The introduction to your site1: begin with a short overview that explains what solutions your company provides. The index page of your site is the one most frequently entered upon by visitors through search engines and other external links; I recommend that you put your news on this page as well. With news on the first page, Google is much more likely to be aware that your site is updated regularly. Another benefit is that it allows return visitors to see new content on the very first click.
  • About us: this is the opportunity for you to wax philosophical about your company. Go nuts! Explain where you came from, who’s behind your business, why you’re in the field you’re in, and where you want to go. Breaking down this information with subheadings such as “Our History”, “Mission Statement”, “Staff Bios” etc. is a great idea to help people scan to the information they want to read about you.
  • Products and/or Services: this page (or these pages) should expound what you know and love: the product and/or service your business offers. This is where you can show photographs of your product or service in action, with detailed captions. Try to hire a professional photographer2 to compose well-lit, interesting shots. Remember: everything you put on your website is building your brand.

Other content pages I would suggest including:

  • Photo albums: these don’t have to be only for personal use or to display professional photography. A number of my clients incorporate photo albums into their websites:
    • Dog Lounge has a photo album to show the environment in which the pets are taken care of.
    • Building Blocks Nursery School has photo albums that give a tour of the school and show special field trips or holidays celebrated.
    • Melissa Munroe has photo galleries not just for her professional photography shoots, but also to display her past modeling experiences.

It’s not hard to see why these photo albums work for these business owners. If you provide services for events or productions, a great idea is to include a photo gallery of successful past events.

  • Articles you’ve written: chances are you have a passion for the industry in which your business resides. If so, it’s a good idea to write about it: help your customers use your product better; tutor them on how to make the most of your services (kind of like what I’m doing in this article…); draw your competitors to your site by critiquing the latest industry happenings; write a report on that successful promotion you just wrapped up. Whatever you do with this section, make sure it is informed, well-written and relevant to your business. The same goes for all pages on your site – just remember not to stray too far from your industry if you decide to write articles.
  • Blogs: More companies are using blogs to keep in touch with their customer base these days. Blogs contain writing that is slightly less formal with a more human touch than articles or news sections would contain. They are a current trend and may be right for you to implement. It all depends on how you feel about them, whether you want to update more often than weekly, and how savvy you are at using rich-text editors such as Word.

Setting aside time to write

So, the number one reason you haven’t got any content on your website is that you have no time to write it. My advice? Begin to budget time for it, weekly. Your website copy is just as, if not more, important than your print collateral: it has the potential to reach a much wider audience than print flyers, and to project far more information about your company and its products or services than any flyer or brochure could provide.

If you’re beginning to embark on the task of content-creation for your entire site, consider these points:

  • Decide what information is most important – and tackle that first. This means writing up a list of all the information you want to provide on your website, and then prioritising it based on what you a) want your visitors to know about you, and b) know that your visitors are seeking. That way, you get your important information on your website faster, and can boost it with smaller, less essential items as you move along.
  • Keep the writing targeted towards your market. Depending on whom you are selling to, this could mean using industry-specific keywords, or distilling your phrases to laymen’s terms.
  • Use plenty of descriptive subheadings, and keep paragraphs short. This will allow users to scan the text quickly and find what they are looking for. It’s a fact – people read less these days. Instead, they scan, picking up key information from words and phrases that stand out. Subheadings help with this. Bullet points help with this (but don’t overkill this technique – a well-written paragraph is always pleasant to read too).
  • Develop a voice. Are you a mom-and-pop shop, trying to appeal to down-to-earth consumers? A medium-sized company doing business with smaller ones? Do you work directly with clients? Are you aiming for a market that appreciates crass humour? Make sure the voice reflects you and your business’s core values, but also maintains a level of professional detachment.

Keeping the content fresh

Once you have your core content, it’s time to think about how to keep your website up to date. If you have fee schedules, calendars of events, newsletters or anything that changes over time, it is essential to keep on top of them. Whenever you change that file on your computer, have your web designer change it on your website. Dated material on a website begins to cast a negative glow over your brand: the older the date, the less impactful and less credible your site will seem. Think about it: if you go to a website that lists something from 2004 and nothing newer, don’t you quickly move on?

If you go with a blog or a news section, be sure to update it at least weekly.

Content gets you everywhere

If you’ve got a website for your business, content is a necessity. Spend the time, or the money if you must hire someone else to do it for you, to have well-written, informed content that portrays your business in the appropriate light. Work on your voice and phrasing. Keep it relevant and up to date, and in the end you will gain the trust and confidence of your potential customers. The saying is true, as ever: the more effort you make, the more you get out of your endeavours.

Footnotes

1A note on splash pages: these are highly recommended against these days. It used to be very popular to put a sort of “curtain” page between your website and the page that it was entered from. However, this practice is now highly frowned upon in web design: and for good reason. These pages place a barrier between your visitors and the content you want them to access. People have less patience these days and will quickly leave your site if they have to click too many times to find the information they want. Related to this is search engine placement. You want to be placed higher in the results and therefore you need a meaningful, content-driven home page, that is updated often. Splash pages mask that access for the search engine.
return to place

2I recommend the services of Melissa Munroe, a professional photographer based in Toronto, Ontario.
return to place

Other resources

If you want to learn more about writing for the web specifically, I recommend:

  • Writing for the web: [Geek’s Edition] or [Writer’s Edition]. I own the Writer’s Edition, and I’m not too sure why there are two versions or how they differ – or, for that matter, why I considered myself a writer more than a geek when I picked up this book. In any case, it’s been an excellent resource for me.
  • Writing for the Web: the blog of the author of the above book, found quite by accident and happily added to this list.
  • eClass: Writing and Editing for the Web, Circa 2006: MediaBistro offers writing courses over the web, and this one specifically targets how to write content for websites.

where is the internet headed?

The web is in a transitional period.

Truthfully, it has always been a thing that constantly evolved. From the original text-based freenets, to initial graphics-based browsers, to a more accessible, geek-filled landscape and now plunked directly into pop culture – its forms have always changed year to year.

It’s just that right now, I feel the changes are at some tipping point. Last year, blogging became the latest “big” thing, reaching some sort of threshold causing it to go from a geeks-only hobby, to a now-expected form of communication, like email has become. There are millions of blogs, most people online keeping up at least one, if not more – whether private, public or otherwise.

This year, someone started the idea of Web 2.0 and we haven’t stopped hearing about it since. The cause of the term itself: all these crazy and interesting web services and social networking sites popping up all over the place (words chosen not necessarily descriptive of sites linked to).

The latest thing that’s really starting to pick up is the whole idea of archiving the web. Granted, Archive.org has been attempting to do this for years, however its database is limited. A quick search on some of my first websites returns only two or three results (out of probably fifteen sites I made back in the day).

Still, website content and data integrity have become hot topics these days. Even the Government of Canada, Library & Archives Canada specifically, is launching a project to archive websites they deem “important” enough to include in a perpetual archive of information.

Somewhat alarming, mostly interesting, the whole idea of documenting and keeping for prosperity all of the sheer amounts of information on the internet is mind-boggling. Of course, nobody purports to do just that yet – because honestly, what would be the value in it? But I’m sure one day, with the the advent of those tiny, cube-shaped, laser-read computer chips that are in development (I heard about them from somewhere, unfortunately can’t cite where – if anyone can give me a little more information, I’d be happy to post links and whatnot), I’m sure it’s not going to remain an impossible task.

The problem is all the crappy content, or all the content that no one cares about because it is not relevant to anyone outside their social circle (MySpace anyone?). All those low-grade reviews people write for the social networking sites about things they’ve used, read, watched or eaten… surely these people who extoll the virtues of archiving the web are not talking about that drivel. I truly hope they mean only to archive and document content with the most meaningful sources and names to back them up. That’s not to say something more grassroots like CokeWatch.org should be ignored – obviously, the sites that track large corporations and the “evildoings” of larger bodies should also be kept to counteract all the propoganda those sites pepper in the media and in their advertising. But… I wonder what system these archivers have in place for determining what content is worth keeping, and what should be ditched?

A little more difficult to distinguish than, say, printed books (assuming the printed books were carefully read and edited for quality writing and plot), versus the manuscript by someone no one’s ever heard of that would only be of interest to the person’s family. Although, in that case, a local library would likely still store handwritten papers because they could be of interest to the community. On the other hand, making those items widely available in multiple copies is much less likely to occur in that case.

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say. I think it’s just a feeling I’m trying to describe; that the web is on the verge between the current state and its next iteration; that soon, ubiquitous computing (the term is synonymous, to me, with constant internet access everywhere you go, something like what public radio is today) will become prevalent; and perhaps, also, at least in my vision of a better world, we’ll finally turn away from our computers for all our social needs.

Yes, you heard me.

I, who used to be the biggest geek on the planet, retreating into the depths and anonymity of cyberspace, is now advocating a great release from it. Yes, keep in touch with friends and family who are not closeby using your blogs and email. But don’t let websites like MySpace, or Vox, or StumbleUpon replace your social activities, as most of us are now doing.

And the whole archiving the web thing… well… don’t blame me when I just switch it all off for good. Can you say information overload? I discussed this with my friend, Yassi last night – yes, in person. It was mentioned that perhaps our brains will evolve further to be able to process (not remember) greater amounts of information. It certainly seems that’s where we are headed with all this training on how to find information with our new digital tools, versus stuffing our brains full of actual information pieces to be stored away for later use. However that is an entirely other discussion, to be written up when I am again feeling in a philosophical mood.

amazon.com’s online reader service

Amazon.com is once again beginning to amaze (scoff!) me. I just recently started paying attention to the American giant again (I’ve been hanging out on Amazon.ca for the past few years, which is sufficiently behind its parent as to be still stuck in the late 90s – or so it feels) and I cannot believe the amount of features it now boasts.

Not only does it have flashy interface thingamabobbers (yummy bubbly menu buttons and rolling-out-pop-ups of super-information over some links), but it’s gone truly wiki-like in style. Buyers and sellers can now edit every product page, submit their own images of products (or the way they use those products), search inside the text from all the books enrolled in that program on their site (can you imagine the amount of data they have to store for that? image files of every page really add up)… they are even launching a video program on their site this summer!

The latest feature is a further development of the Search Inside program – the Amazon Online Reader. It’s a more sophisticated version of what they had before – allowing you to now zoom in and out of the pages, highlight or bookmark sections of the book for later, copy text, print it… don’t just listen to me talk about it, take a look for yourself! [Warning: you may have to log in to get the gadget to work.]
I suppose it’s all part of the program that will soon allow readers to purchase online versions of books and also read them there.

times they are a-changin’

I don’t know why, but it feels lately that Google’s searches are less relevant.

I used to be a whizz at finding things online; I’d go to Google and type in a phrase related to what I was looking for, and voila! I’d have an extremely specific, accurate answer in a matter of moments.

Now, however, I find myself typing in multiple phrases and synonyms of words that I’m looking for, and coming up with practically nothing that is relevant or even close to what I was looking for. It feels as though the phrase search (typing a phrase enclosed in quotes) just doesn’t work anymore. Or perhaps I’m just searching for more complicated subjects, due to the nature of my work. Or perhaps, further, there is simply a higher signal-to-noise ratio on the interweb than there ever was before (probably caused by the same thing that caused the exponential boom of blogs I’ve noticed over the past year).

I don’t know. But it feels like I’ve lost my magic Googling skills and that in turn makes me feel as though I’m lagging behind; as if that ever-encroaching, inevitable drop out of the race, that everyone involved with technology must experience, is just around the corner. No; I won’t let it happen yet!