I’m Feeling Lucky is an entertaining look at Google’s start-up days by Douglas Edwards, a marketing professional who was Google’s 59th employee. Edwards tells a story about being brand manager in a company where marketing wasn’t much valued. This could be described as unenviable, if not for the value of the stock options he received which should have made even the worst of his experiences bearable in retrospect.
Edwards portrays himself as a hapless naive soul in over his head, which makes for a fun narrative. There are plenty of good anecdotes, like the time when Matt Cutts’s wife had the idea of baking free “porn cookies” as a reward for everyone who helped test the new Google porn filter – “Search for porn, get a cookie” was the unmissable incentive. There’s also an account of the challenges of establishing Google in China, when Edwards is sent there to find a new Chinese name for the brand because “while Yahoo’s name translated as ‘elegant tiger,’ ours was rendered with characters that meant ‘old dog.’”
The section about how the company reacted on and after September 11th is really fascinating. I remember at the time wondering what the decision-making process was behind the content which appeared then on the Google homepage and it’s interesting to see this explained.
Since the story ends over six years ago, when the author left Google in April 2005, it doesn’t provide an up-to-date insider’s view of how Google operates today. However, there’s still a lot here which is helpful for understanding the issues the company now faces. There’s a vivid picture of the culture clash between engineering and marketing in an engineering-lead environment and some memorable vignettes of bosses Larry Page and Sergey Brin – such as the following anecdote, where Sergey sets out his ambitions for Google’s future:
“Speed is an issue for me,” [Sergey] said, “… If search engines were faster and better, they could be integrated into your thought process.” He saw Google becoming an invisible component in every user’s decision-making, not just a tool for finding a particular fact. Apparently “brain-integration” was one of our hitherto undisclosed corporate goals.
Sergey’s stated aims for Google becoming an “invisible component” in every user’s decision making is revealing – given that recent critiques like Siva Vaidhyanathan’s “The Googlization of Everything” and Eli Pariser’s “The Filter Bubble” have lamented the effects of Google’s “invisible” personalisation and default options in shaping the way people are now receiving news and other information.
Another fascinating section for current concerns about the company comes from the discussion of attitudes towards privacy issues. Now that governments across Europe are legislating on providing explicit opt-outs for tracking cookies, it’s interesting to see the stated reasoning behind Google’s initial cookies policy. Edwards writes:
What if we let users opt out of accepting our cookies altogether? I liked that idea, but Marissa [Mayer] raised an interesting point. We would clearly want to set the default as “accept Google’s cookies.” If we fully explained what that meant to most users, however, they would probably prefer not to to accept our cookie. So our default setting would go against users’ wishes.
…so it was better not to open the issue up at all. The vehemence of management insistence that there were no privacy issues with Google indicates that they were very aware that privacy concerns could be a serious problem – such as in the following account of Sergey’s reaction to early PR problems with Gmail:
Sergey paced the office like a tiger in a tiny cage, commanding us to set up a war room to deal with the problem, demanding we put up more information on the site, and insisting that we tell everyone, “There is no privacy issue.”
The conflict between Google’s need as a company to make money out of mining user-supplied data for ad personalisation and it’s desire to portray itself as a friend of user privacy is obviously something which continues to this day.
There’s also an interesting account of how Google’s original social network “Orkut” got set up, in a section called “The Antisocial Network”, which shows how Google lost out on an opportunity to compete with Facebook early on.
Edward’s narrative overall is undeniably rose-tinted, but he doesn’t avoid criticism of Google where it’s due – as in this part of his closing analysis:
Is Google secretive? No question. Arrogant? Maybe. Tone-deaf to the concerns of the very users it claims to serve? Occasionally. But evil? I don’t think so.
This is a fun read for a business/tech book and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone’s who’s interested in Google, search or the history of the web.
I’m Feeling Lucky – The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59 is written by Douglas Edwards and published by Allen Lane.
Review of Googling Security: How Much Does Google Know About You?
October 30th, 2011 in
| tags: Google
Search Engine Optimization Secrets is a good introductory read for business owners who want to get up to speed with SEO quickly. Compared to some of the weightier tomes on offer about the subject, this is a manageable size and presented in a practical way, with useful checklists for many of the topics covered. The author’s scepticism about paid-for SEO tools is particularly refreshing in an SEO ebook, since many similar works exist to exclusively promote particular services.
One of the title’s main selling points is its currency. This is the 2010 edition of the book, which is updated annually to take account of new developments. (However, the ‘SEO for 2011′ part of the title is a bit optimistic for a book published in the first half of 2010.) There’s a special report on how to optimize your site for better ratings with Bing, coverage of Google Caffeine and up-to-date screenshots of the various online tools and services covered.
The worst aspect of the book for me was that the version that’s on sale is plainly unfinished. The copy I bought from Amazon a month ago still had editor’s comments included in the text. Being up to date is great in an SEO book, but it would still be nice to get a properly finished product.
Search Engine Optimization Secrets: SEO for 2011 is written by Mike Monahan and published as a Kindle ebook by MediaWorks Publishing.
See other SEO-related reviews: Building Findable Websites, Where Search Meets Web Usability and The Truth about Search Engine Optimization.
August 5th, 2010 in
| tags: SEO
I think I’ve mentioned before how useful I find the lynda.com online training library. It’s always been a great resource for learning web design applications, but it also has an ever-increasing number of titles on other software and broader web-related topics. I’ve recently been watching one of the more recent additions: Social Media Marketing with Facebook and Twitter by Anne-Marie Concepción.
The title provides a great introduction for complete newcomers to either social networking environment, but the course is sensibly structured so the starter videos on basic account set-up can be skipped by people who already have personal accounts. Setting up business accounts on Twitter and business pages on Facebook is then covered in full, with discussions and demonstrations of all the available functionality. Useful caveats are also provided when necessary. For example, you’re shown how to automatically import your blog into your Facebook page, but also warned why you probably don’t want to do this and given a sensible alternative.
The really valuable part of the title for many people will be its advice on using Twitter and Facebook strategically for business marketing, with special emphasis on increasing viral effects via ‘word of keyboard’.
For me some of the most interesting advice here included:
- Ways to cross-promote blog posts, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages.
- Advice on measuring the impact of Twitter and Facebook use – vital in a lot of business environments where the tools can be regarded as time-wasters.
- Tips on using Twitter, Facebook and companion tools like Tweetdeck to search for business opportunites and ideas.
- A useful breakdown of all the differences between pages and groups in Facebook – something I’ve never very clearly understood.
This is a fun title which is definitely worth a viewing if you’re a lynda.com subscriber with any interest in social marketing.
Social Media Marketing with Facebook and Twitter by Anne-Marie Concepción is available on the lynda.com training site.
Review of WordPress.com Essential Training – another lynda.com title.
This is a neat little book on project management, which is ideal reading for web professionals acting as part-time project managers who don’t have time to read weightier tomes on the topic. As the title suggests, it contains 97 two-page essays from practitioners which are generally written in an engaging anecdotal style. It includes a useful index of tips by topic and quick explanations of project and technical terms at the bottom of pages, making it very accessible for newcomers to the subject. The focus is on IT projects in general, but lots of the tips are relevant to web-related projects.
Among the more useful areas covered for web project management are:
- An emphasis in several contributions on agile project development, involving frequent interaction with clients to evaluate features as they’re created.
- Reflections on the inevitability of scope change after requirements have been finalized and ways to deal with this. A good tip is provided on planning possible scope reductions from the beginning of a project in a controlled way by grading requirements according to their business value and the degree that they have dependencies for other requirements. The nice-to-haves with no dependencies are the obvious candidates for culling if necessary later on.
- Encouraging simple solutions over complex ones – including in code development.
- Finding alternatives to long pointless meetings – frequent instant ‘standup’ meetings are recommended by several contributors.
97 Things Every Project Manager Should Know: Collective Wisdom from the Experts is edited by Barbee Davis and published by O’Reilly.
Free ebooks for web project management
Textual content is a red-headed stepchild when it comes to website design and development. It’s left to the last minute in site redesigns, viewed as a commodity by most site owners and as a simple item in a to-do list for UX designers. Website text is rarely approached correctly in web projects as a ‘complex, ever-evolving body of information which needs ongoing care and feeding’.
This is the striking viewpoint of Kristina Halvorson’s book on content strategy which lays bare the complexities of content production. She offers plenty of common-sense advice about how to build website text into a key business asset, keep control of it over the long term and set measurable objectives for success.
Key to this is developing an appreciation of the political nature of content, engaging with content providers and giving reviewers plenty of notice for their contributions. ‘Don’t leave content management to your CMS’ is the clear message. You need people for meaningful, actionable content and the key person required is someone in overall charge of content – an editor-in-chief empowered to say no to the business when necessary.
The content audit is thoroughly explored as a content management tool. There are useful practical tips here, such as using indented outline numbers in your audit documentation - 1.0, 1.1, 1.2 , etc – so you can easily link specific pieces of content to matching references in the site map and other documents later. There’s also an interesting discussion of the use of page tables for content planning and advice on how to include qualitative judgments in your audit as well as just conducting a quantitative analysis of content
There’s a whole chapter on content maintenance – a subject you rarely see people write much about. This advises developing a maintenance plan, having enforceable well-documented rules and using regularly-scheduled qualitative audits to question the ongoing purpose of each piece of content. The latter point draws on Gerry McGovern’s useful advice that all content ought to be regularly reviewed and removed if it’s not meeting a business objective or helping users achieve a task.
The book has a lively pugnacious style which makes it an easy read about a subject that could easily have come across as dull. The author makes a stack of suggestions which anybody working on websites could benefit from. However, reading it only confirmed my pre-existing assumption that content strategy can be a hard sell.
Improving the status of content creation in most organisations involves fighting against the general assumption of management that ‘anyone can write content’. Within the professional web world it’s up against the status of more exciting and saleable web disciplines in design and development and specialisms like SEO which contribute more transparently to improving the bottom line. In this context, long-term content maintenance is never going to be generally considered as important as implementing an exciting new content management system or launching a flashy new site design. Recognising the centrality of textual content to a successful web presence is therefore always going to be difficult to sell to a lot of organisations, but this book is one of the best pitches I’ve seen so far.
Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson is published by New Riders.
Letting Go of the Words is another recommended book on writing for the web which I reviewed last year.
I picked up “ProBlogger” this week looking for some motivational reading to get me writing regularly again. I’ve been bogged down for the last couple of months with buying a house which has diverted a lot of time and energy I’d rather have spent working on websites. The process has also left me feeling a lot poorer, so dangling the offer of a six-figure income in front of me was pretty effective.
I thought this book provided a good solid introduction to the issues surrounding monetizing blogs. It has plenty of tips which will be useful to any blogger – whether they’re interested in making money or not. Despite the “six-figure income” bit of the title, the authors don’t push any get-rich-quick scams, but instead emphasise the time, hard work and discipline it takes to succeed. The personal blogging stories they provide in the introduction are particularly effective at getting this across – for example, this is Darren Rowse on his posting frequency:
“… there have been countless nights when I’ve worked into the wee hours of the morning blogging. Though I have better boundaries these days, it wasn’t unusual for me to post 50 times per day over 12 hours in front of the screen. “
This kind of makes me feel inadequate about my inability to manage one post a week…
The book starts with a chapter on “blogging for money” which looks broadly at different monetization methods for blogging and ways of measuring your blog’s success. This builds nicely into the second chapter on niche blogging, one of the core techniques for getting money out of blogs. The authors look at the benefits of finding the right niche and give detailed guidance on how to pick a profitable niche, considering:
- Are you interested in the topic? Do you have experience or expertise in it?
- Is the topic popular? Is the niche growing or shrinking?
- What’s the competition, and what’s it neglecting?
- Will you have enough content?
- Is the niche able to be monetized?
- How wide should a niche be?
Chapter 3 is about setting up a blog. Most of this is pitched at a basic level for people who haven’t tried blogging before – including a step-by-step guide to setting up a hosted blog at WordPress.com and a discussion of the benefits of hosted vs. self-hosted blogs. However, there are still some tips here which more experienced bloggers could gain from – especially in the discussion of factors to consider when choosing a domain name.
Chapter 4 is about blog writing. It’s probably the section of the book which will be most useful for all bloggers – not just those who are seeking to blog for profit. Topics covered include providing useful content, researching readership and writing tips for blogs. My favourite bit in this section is the list of 20 types of blog post – which should come in very handy if you ever get completely stuck for something to write.
The next couple of chapters are about actually making money, covering “blog income and earning strategies” and “buying and selling blogs”. These provide wide-ranging coverage of issues surrounding advertising and other methods of earning income from blogging – including a short look at indirect income earning strategies like freelance blogging, magazines and books, speaking, consulting and employment opportunities. The buying and selling section includes a discussion of flipping (buying blogs to sell them). There’s also coverage of how to value blogs and where and how to buy and sell them.
After a short section about blog networks, there’s a chapter on “blog promotion and marketing” which is definitely worth reading. It discusses building flagship content, commenting and linking generously, getting attention through link baiting, running competitions, using social media, SEO and tips for increasing page views on your blog.
The book is rounded off by a couple of short chapters covering “secrets of successful blogs” and “creating something worthwhile”.
Overall it’s a useful read – and it managed to motivate me at least enough to get me to write this post.
ProBlogger: Secrets for Blogging Your Way to a Six-Figure Income by Darren Rowse and Chris Garrett was published last year by Wiley.
For people looking to start using WordPress for their blogging efforts, see my review of WordPress.Com Essential Training.
July 26th, 2009 in
| tags: Blogging
Rebecca Lieb’s The Truth about Search Engine Optimization provides a concise introduction to the basics of SEO in an engaging way. It’s avowedly not a technical book, but it manages to get across some complicated concepts in an accessible fashion.
Its non-techie language makes it a good choice to give to clients or marketing colleagues who you want to steer away from SEO scammers. The author provides solid advice focusing on the need to provide ‘strong relevant content for users combined with links, keywords and phrases that make it search-engine friendly’. Readers are given a good appreciation of what to expect from an SEO professional and will also learn plenty of things they can do themselves to improve their site’s performance in the SERPs.
Amongst the sensible points made, there’s advice to ‘never hire anyone who promises the number one slot on Google’ and suitably dire warnings of the perils of link farms and black hat SEO. Detailed guidance is given on building a link strategy and minimising the effects on search engine ranking of moving domains. There’s nice balanced analyses of the importance of PageRank, the pros and cons of outsourced vs. internal SEO in organisations and the benefits of user-generated content for search. There’s also a welcome emphasis on the benefits of standards compliance for SEO, which it’s great to see presented to a non-technical audience.
Alongside all the good recommendations in the book, there were just a couple of things I didn’t totally agree with. There’s one section which reads like it encourages viewing “alt” text primarily as a keyword-placement opportunity rather than as a useful description for people using screen-readers. (Elsewhere however there is good accessibility advice on posting HTML transcripts for audio files.)
Also, I thought the section looking at Flash from an SEO viewpoint was overly negative for a book published in 2009. In 2008 Adobe and Google cooperated to deliver a great improvement in SWF search indexing and Flash sites now don’t have to be the search engine pariahs they once were (as long as developers know what they’re doing). Todd Perkins’ recent O’Reilly book on Search Engine Optimization for Flash covers the current state of play in great detail. It would be a shame if site owners just read ‘The Truth about Search Engine Optimization’ and dismissed all Flash development out of hand.
Generally though, this is a useful book you can recommend to anyone as an introduction to SEO or use as a refresher to provide a checklist of points any SEO project should cover.
The Truth about Search Engine Optimization by Rebecca Lieb is published by Que.
Other books on SEO I’ve reviewed are Building Findable Websites and Where Search Meets Web Usability.
May 12th, 2009 in
| tags: Marketing
Drupal Multimedia offers an in-depth look at how to integrate images, videos and audio into a Drupal site. The intended audience is beginners and intermediate developers who want to learn how to better control and display media on their sites. Dealing with multimedia with Drupal often feels much more complicated than it should be, but this book definitely helps to make it more comprehensible.
Getting the learning curve right in the first chapter of an intermediate Drupal book can be tricky. I think ‘Drupal Multimedia’ does well here – assuming a bit of knowledge of Drupal, reviewing the basic building blocks of the system briefly, then diving right into installing the CCK and Views modules. Examples of using these are worked through, before moving on to discuss theming and overrides – again with simple examples. A lot is covered in the first forty pages, but without overwhelming the reader.
The second chapter begins to look at dealing with images, with good introductions to using the Image module and its related Image Gallery to easily create a simple gallery. There’s also a discussion of embedding images in articles with Drupal, which looks at how this can be done by enabling editors to use full HTML or, more usefully in many cases, how to use Image Assist to allow images to be added to posts more easily. Installing TinyMCE as a WYSIWYG editor which works with Image Assist is also covered. This chapter will be very useful to new users of Drupal, for whom the lack of a built-in editor and basic image-adding functionality is likely to be something they miss straight away. The next two chapters go into more detail about using images – looking at more complicated development and theming issues. There’s examples here of using the ImageField and ImageCache modules and coverage of how to customise your image output.
Video is covered in two chapters which look at dealing with both third-party and local video. Using the Embedded Media Field module for third-party video is covered, followed by a look at using the FileField and jQuery Media modules for serving local video. A chapter on file asset management covers options for managing media files, looking primarily at the Node Reference, Asset and Media Mover modules. Audio is covered in three chapters looking at audio nodes, audio fields and theming audio. These discuss the Audio module and also revisit the FileField, jQuery Media and Embedded Media Field modules.
The final chapter is an interesting preview of the future of Drupal multimedia. This offers a tantalizing glimpse into an easier future for handling multimedia with Drupal 7. For me, two of the biggest drawbacks of using Drupal for building and maintaining sites are the hoops you have to jump through to deal with simple file handling and the hideous complexity of the administration menus. A lot of the administration options are frankly unintuitive and difficult to remember if you’re not using them constantly. It’s good to learn from this chapter that the Drupal development community is actively working to improve things in these areas.
I got a lot out of this book overall – especially from the detailed recommendations for the use of particular modules. The author puts across complicated concepts very accessibly with well-chosen examples which build up satisfyingly to help you understand the big picture.
Drupal Multimedia by Aaron Winborn is published by Packt Publishing.
I’ve looked at other books on Drupal in previous posts on Learning Drupal and Drupal 6 Themes.
Sexy Web Design is a very readable look at the process of web design which walks the reader through a small example design project for an events site. The title’s a bit deceptive, as the emphasis isn’t just on pretty looks. There’s also plenty of advice about how designers can work with usability and accessibility in mind.
The author focuses purely on the pre-coding design stage of building a site. However, he takes the sensible view that someone designing a website needs to understand implementation issues so that the design won’t be unnecessarily difficult to code once the Photoshop comps are complete.
The book covers the whole of this design process, starting with getting an effective brief out of clients. There’s good advice here about asking clients which sites they like or dislike and why – which it’s rightly said can be as informative as a design brief in itself. There follows a good discussion on wireframing and an excellent section on aesthetics. The latter has a very succinct summary of best practice regarding layout and composition, with good links to tools for choosing colour schemes and using grids.
Some of the most interesting parts of the book are the tips on how to effectively present your designs to clients via Photoshop comps and mock-up sites. This should be of particular help to a lot of people starting out, as compiling deliverables is an area which doesn’t tend to get a lot of coverage in other books.
As well as the designs for the example site, there are well-chosen screen-shots from real sites which enrich the book a lot. Throughout, the author emphasises the importance of attention to detail and the designer’s responsibility to push at boundaries, while respecting useful conventions.
Sexy Web Design by Elliot Jay Stocks is published by Sitepoint.
April 20th, 2009 in
| tags: Web design
Where Search Meets Web Usability is a practical guide to building sites which are both search-engine friendly and easy to navigate around. Its selling point over other search engine optimisation books is its combination of SEO advice with tips and testing methods drawn from the discipline of web usability.
The book uses the concept of the ‘scent of information’ to put forward a unified theory of web-searching behaviour, which also draws heavily on a categorisation of query types into navigational, informational and transactional – categories which search engines use to anticipate the intent of a user’s search. These different query types are fully explored and there is also detailed coverage of how to estimate the benefits of search usability and how different types of web professional can work together to improve it. The final chapter contains a set of easy-to-employ usability tests for search usability which should be of real practical benefit when developing sites.
The authors are at their most interesting when looking at the limitations of the SEO and usability mindsets and advising how the two can learn from each other. Usability professionals are told to look more at how people get to web sites rather than just what they do when they get there. Stereotypical SEOers, on the other hand, should spend more time considering whether users are satisfied when they get to a site rather than just concentrating on getting as many eyes on the page as possible. Usability types could take advantage of SEO keyword tools as a way of getting to understand the language employed by users, while SEO practitioners can benefit from speaking to actual users and employing usability testing to understand why their interaction with search engines and sites works out like it does.
Out of this clash of viewpoints, there’s some nice common-sense points made which you may not have seen argued before. For example, it’s explained why a high bounce rate could be a good thing in some circumstances – if people are getting what they want on the first page they visit. Equally, we see why a number one SERP rating can be a bad thing if it results in brand devaluation due to visitors not getting what they want out of the site when they find it.
So overall, its an interesting read and a refreshingly holistic view on a topic which feels like it’s been done to death recently.
When Search Meets Web Usability by Shari Thurow and Nick Musica is published by New Riders.
Building Findable Websites by Aarron Walter is another very good book on SEO which also takes a wide view of the subject.
April 13th, 2009 in
| tags: SEO