Friday, July 27, 2007


In an earlier post, I discussed the potential of the Semantic Web. I wrote how the problem with current web content is it cannot be distinguished by machines and that the goal of the Semantic Web is for machines to be able to read web content and understand at least some of it and then be able to prioritize info and automate tasks for us as a result.

One of the comments to this posting, by Stephen Fetter, pointed out that adding this level of meaning would no doubt complicate web publishing for non-professionals and remove the egalitarian nature of web publishing.

Then to prove Stephen's point, I learned on Wednesday of a growing technique to add semantic meaning to web content, that even I, an OLD pro, found initially intimidating.

Prior to reading a SitePoint article called Microformats: More Meaning from Your Markup I hadn't heard of microformats, though the project is more than two years old.

Microformats are special attributes for various types of data, for instance for event info (date, place, etc.), for people info (name, address, etc.) and others. The attributes are added to standard HTML tags.

To assuage our concerns that we'll have to do web coding completely different, the microformat gurus at assure us microformats are:
Designed for humans first and machines second, microformats are a set of simple, open data formats built upon existing and widely adopted standards. Instead of throwing away what works today, microformats intend to solve simpler problems first by adapting to current behaviors and usage patterns

I was still a bit intimidated until I tried's code generator and 1) was impressed at their tool doing the work for me 2) noticed the code it wrote was not very complicated.

Here's my contact information written with microformats:
Glen Farrelly
Eglington Ave.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

This hCard was created with the hCard creator.

Now if web publishing software like Dreamweaver just came built in with this level of support, then non-programmers would be more able and more likely to use it.

Microformats have a long way to go both in terms of people coding with it and applications using it - but it offers a lot of potential to save time and greatly improve web content.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Web 2.0 Smites Business 2.0 ran a story earlier this week on the probable demise of print magazine Business 2.0 and the death throws of tech magazines.

Business 2.0 is one of my favourite magazines as it focuses on the business role of new technology, that is not just tech for tech's sake with all the gory, nerdy details but how technology can actually be used to make something happen, and make money.

In the article, Bye-Bye, Business 2.0, the author, Brian Caulfield, believes this is due in part to ad revenues moving away from traditional methods to targeted, online methods. Caulfield also claims blogs scooped up a large amount of remaining advertising dollars.

I was discussing this at lunch today with Brad Einarsen of Haven Knowledge Systems, and we noted that it appears Business 2.0 was done in by the rise of Web 2.0.

Isn't it ironic (in the incorrect, Alanis Morissette use of the term), don't you think?

As one who works in the Internet, I should be happy to see more ad revenue spent online. But having worked for a website that relied on advertising six years ago, I'm very familiar with what happens when the economy inevitably cycles downward - ad revenue dries up and the lay-offs begin (even if it is a few days before Christmas!).

Based on another article I read today, it appears that some facets of online advertising is even more problematic. Banner ad click-through rates are low - we all know that, but according to Dave Morgan in his blog posting Outing the Heavy Clickers, the few click-throughs they do get tend to be from one small, and not necessarily lucrative, segment.

Every day it seems, I see another Web 2.0 start-up, many are quite cool, but most seem to rely on ad revenue and I think many of these ones will tank (unlike others such as Web 2.0 darling, T-Shirt designer and retailer Threadless). Still, I'd be more nervous to be in the newspaper business now (particularly in the Classifieds department).

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Searching; Finding

Website search keeps coming up for me lately.

First, there was the discussion and blog posting on the Semantic Web, then a coworker asked me to look into ways to limit a search to only meta data (still looking), and then last week a coworker sent me a link to a exciting example of using a search tactic to help users and achieve marketing goals.

As so many web users are search dominant, one of the first things I did when I started managing my company’s website was to make sure we had a good search engine. That was five years ago and at the time many corporate websites’ search engines were abysmal to problematically useful.

We purchased a search engine from Verity (now owned by Autonomy) and I have been very happy with their product and service. In addition, I helped make the search engine more user-friendly by adding a custom thesaurus. As our business has so much jargon, the thesaurus redirects automatically from plain language or acronyms or official terminology.

Fine tuning a search engine

There is still work to be done with the search engine. It doesn’t allow natural language (eg. “Where are you located?”) nor does it allow fuzzy search for misspellings. And while Boolean (ie. searching with operators such as “and”, “or”, “not”) is supported, the default is to use only “and”. If one searches for Glen Farrelly, it looks for those two words together. If it gets no results, I would like it to try looking for the words Glen or Farrelly. Searchers should also be able to choose to limit their search to clearly-defined areas.

The above techniques help improve the results returned, but the problem remains that most search engine’s results pages are not that helpful.

Problems with corporate search engines

There are almost always too many results and they aren’t presented in a reader-friendly format. To make results read a bit better, I have been making sure all my title tags are short and indicative of the content. I could, possibly, have the text displayed under the title populated from the contents of the meta description tag – but this takes a lot of work to write and to code for an entire website. These techniques improve the results page, but don’t solve all the issues.

Sometimes people just have quick questions, such as address or opening hours, that can be answered in a sentence or two. Also search engines don’t generally have the ability to allow results for designated items to have custom replies.

These two items would allow a website manager to take the most common searched for items or items that are a priority for the company and display a short, well-worded reply and/or a link or two to more information.

I have seen sites do this, though not very often and then not particularly effectively. Until last week…

Finding the answer

Go to and introduce yourself to Julie.

Coast Capital Savings, based out of British Columbia, is Canada’s second largest credit union. I’d never heard of them, but now I’m in love with Julie.

Personal finance is boring, so very, very unbelievable boring (like boring enough that I’d watch reruns of Small Wonder instead of reading about it online). But Julie makes it so much fun.

Type in “GICs” and she finds a way to make talking about term deposits not boring! Auto insurance and RESP are also amusing - even contact info is funny. Julie also “sings” to you.

Here’s a list of topics Julie fields including her easter eggs (including my favourite, the robot dance).

Most importantly, Julie is helpful to users. This is crucial. If it doesn’t help the users, it is at best a passing lark or at worst it could backfire by frustrating users.

Julie is genius on so many levels…

For users:
  • Narrows search results on key topics and directs to the most applicable pages
  • Offers links to info that customers are looking for or company wants to push, or both
  • Humourous approach makes dreary financial topics more interesting
  • User-friendly to the ultimate - as not only is the feature easy to use, it engenders a friendly feeling (except when Julie sings)
  • Homepage real estate is premium (see my posting on the topic) and this delivers multiple tailored messages plus well-positioned calls to action in a relatively small space
From a marketing standpoint:
  • encourages viral marketing (after all a colleague passed it on to me and now I’m passing it on to you)
  • helps differentiate the brand as more fun and unique than the other stodgy, impersonal institutions
  • encourages website visitors to become more engaged with the site and to dig deeper into the offerings, if only to see how Julie responds
  • with new items added to Julie’s array, it encourages users to return to the site
  • hard for competitors to copy (yes the major banks can afford similar technology but they don’t have access to the same persona or gifted production team)
The only downside is that Julie probably doesn’t work well for low-bandwidth users and that the user’s query has to match pretty closely to her pre-defined repertoire. Also, Julie will become less compelling & viral as this technology becomes more common.

I have had this type of feature on my wish list for the last two years. Verity did offer a product to achieve some of this, however, Julie has raised the search bar.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Caught Up In the Semantic Web

I, Glen Farrelly, went for the second time to the Greater Toronto Web Centric Meetup Group Wednesday evening (the organization brings out a diverse, interesting group of people working in the various components of the Web).

I met a colleague there, Richard, and we got to talking about how already the term Web. 3.0, such a groaner term that it is, is becoming more popular.

Web 3.0 is often used to describe the Semantic Web, which has been around since Tim Berners-Lee started the ball rolling on it in 1999. I'd heard and was excited by the Semantic Web a few years ago, but since it was a theoretically concept, it didn't seem to get a lot of popular attention. Until the last few months it seems.

Recently, I'd read an article in Business 2.0 (Business 2.0 is still one of the best magazines covering the Internet topics) by Michael V. Copeland called "Weaving the [Semantic] Web". Since then I found a great, but very long article on the topic by John Borland called A Smarter Web in MIT's Technology Review. Richard also forwarded me a recent conversation with Berners-Lee on the issue in ITWorld Canada.

I don't claim to understand all the complicated science that would enable the Semantic Web, but I do get the need and the possible advantages it promises. Copeland describes the current limations of webpages and existing search technology:

Services like Google do a great job of sifting through all those webpages, but it's up to people to recognize the things they want when they see them in the results... The Web just isn't very smart yet; one webpage is the same as any other. It might have a higher Google ranking, but there's no distinction based on meaning. The semantic Web in the Berners-Lee vision acts more like a series of connected databases, where all information resides in a structured form. Within that structure is a layer of description that adds meaning that the computer can understand.

Borland expands on how the semantic web would work and the benefits:

[it] would provide a way to classify individual bits of online data such as pictures, text, or database entries but would define relationships between classification categories as well. Dictionaries and thesauruses called "ontologies" would translate between different ways of describing the same types of data, such as "post code" and "zip code." All this would help computers start to interpret Web content more efficiently. In this vision, the Web would take on aspects of a database, or a web of databases. Databases are good at providing simple answers to queries because their software understands the context of each entry. "One Main Street" is understood as an address, not just random text. Defining the context of online data just as clearly--labeling a cat as an animal, and a veterinarian as an animal doctor, for example--could result in a Web that computers could browse and understand much as humans do...

With computers able to read webpages more effectively, they'll be able to automate things for us such as finding the cheapest price on something or organizing an evening out with friends.

But if it only results in a simple query on a search engine not returning a gazilon results and make me scour for pages to find good information, then the Semantic Web is a winner to me.

Web 2.0 Mash Ups

Recently, two of my greatest loves on the Internet have just married another one of my greatest Internet loves. Marriages made in cyber-heaven and I'm blissfully happy!

Facebook, which I am still addicted to, now integrates really nicely with you dear blog and with my beloved tagging.

While I am rather reluctant to hoist all my stuff on otherwise innocent friends, I do like to have some audience for what I believe to be some cool, meaningful work I've been doing online.

Rather than try and get the audience to come to me, it's better to go to where the market is: Facebook! built a custom application to syndicate your bookmarks (only the ones you choose to share) onto your Facebook profile page and if you choose to also on Facebook's stalker page.

Facebook allows you to publish all your blog postings, granted in vanilla format, into Facebook via importing them as Notes. Facebook then automatically checks every two hours for new updates and publishes them.

While my blog readership is growing very slowly (and I have no idea who some of the subscribers and visitors are, which is a good sign) it's great to have another venue as well.

My work I've been dying to make better use of (eg. see "Net News" on the right). There is a promising Network ability on but I don't know anybody seriously using it (other than Eden). If you'd like to join My Network please do so.

I also got excited when another love of mine, this one an offline one, seemed to have a cool Facebook application. The new Vampires application seemed cool but just sucked, truthfully. (Note for those "Zombies" who bit me and want me to feast on some fresh, tasty brains - forget it. Zombies are beyond my mandate.)

Otherwise this Web 2.0 mash-ups have been a beautiful thing!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Vanity Search

In an episode from The Simpsons a few months ago, Marge discovered the Internet and quickly succumbed to the temptation of doing a vanity search, that is searching for your own name. She then exclaims:

Wow, and all this time I thought 'googling' yourself meant the other thing!

I'll admit that for years I've been addicted to it.

I don't just google myself (though Google does make it much easier as you can set up an alert to search for you automatically and email you as soon as you are mentioned). I also check out the other search engines to see if the things I want to show up (such as this blog) are any higher.

There's another Glen Farrelly out there and I've determined he is my nemesis and I want obliterate his results to fourth or fifth page oblivion. There's also a Glen Farrelly who's a football player and I think his results add a cool, rugged dimension to my personality.

Other than the Google vanity alert, there hasn't been any great tools to search for you (even going to Europe after highschool didn't help me ever find myself). It's also possible that you could be searching for information on other people too, but my thoughts on recently developments were focused egotistically.

A few months ago, I tried Zoominfo but was unimpressed. A search for me returns only four individuals all of whom are me. I signed up for the service to customize my results but was unable to.

Lately, has been getting some buzz. It's still invitation only, but last week I left my name and email address and a two days ago I got my invitation. I tried it out and searched for me again. Now the results were all distinct, unique Glen Farrellys - and it returned more Glen Farrellys than Zoom did. Spock uses LinkedIn, MySpace and other sites as their basis for distinguishing people and populating with some profile info. I tried searching for my wife and friends and they were no where to be found, though they are all on LinkedIn and Spock supposedly scours it. Also, I tried to claim the Glen Farrelly identity that was mine by entering my LinkedIn password as requested, but after four attempts I haven't been able to.

So Spock has work to do but for a people search and vanity check, but it is promising.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Keep your homepages clean

I feel vindicated by a recently released study by the University of Missouri-Columbia that confirms that presenting too much visual information overwhelms people. While there is a constant urge with homepages to add this and that and then more of this and a few more thats, the result is not that you’re saying more, but that you’re actually saying less as people just can’t take it in.

The human eye can only see & differentiate so much and the brain can only absorb and process so much.

The university study by Kevin Wise & Kimberlee Pepple used photographs. But Wise notes there are larger applications to the findings:
Look at any major news portal, and you may find as many as 50 hyperlinked stories on its front page. The prevalence of this extensive choice online suggests an assumption that people desire extensive options. In our study, however, we found that having more choices is not necessarily better. In fact, it can limit a person's ability to focus on the content

In a recent website redesign, I had to fight to keep the new homepage as clean as possible.

A clean homepage is one that:
  • uses whitespace effectively
  • clearly delineates content spaces
  • only has a few photos or graphics and ones that don't compete for attention
  • does not move (yes someone wanted automatic, looping, animation on our homepage)
  • uses colour sparingly and harmoniously to distinguish & promote areas
  • has concise (but meaningful) text
  • offers design variety in content types (eg. text, photos, spacers) and content shape, size, colour (after all spartan homepages aren't clean, they're boring)
  • overall just not too much!
A website's homepage is the Boardwalk and Park Place combined of a website's real estate (probably also all other real estate right up to Marvin Gardens too). So there will always be increasing & often competing demands on the very finite space (a further limitation - homepages should generally not run below the fold either).

It's crucial to make the hard decisions on what to exclude, but it is not only better for the users to have a clear focus that a clean homepage gives, but it will be more effective for the goals (bottom line or otherwise) of the website as well.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Microsites offer little value

Yesterday, I got the suggestion that I should be using microsites more.

Truthfully, I hadn’t thought of microsites for years. Mostly because other than for marketing or public interest campaigns, one doesn’t seem them much any more.

Wikipedia has a good definition of microsite, but for an example visit Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty. This microsite was lauded in the press and is a fine example of the power of microsites.

Advertisers also like microsites as they can sponsor the entire site prominently and target the content to their aims. Also companies trying to improve search engine optimization are known to use them, but I'm not convinced microsites are the best way to do this.

The problems with microsites, which anyone who has been in web publishing for a few years will know, are legendary:

1) They are orphans from the parent site
By their very nature, microsites are cut off from the main site. Yes, you can put a link back to the homepage but that doesn’t usually suffice. The main site loses traffic and users do not get the full content offering and may be confused by the diminished offering.
2) The orphans are neglected
Microsites are built, possibly with the best intentions, but then attention goes elsewhere and the orphans are left to starve and grow unruly. Microsites are notorious for dead links, out-of-date content and other signs of neglect.
3) They don't look or act like their parents
Microsites are often built by a different team or different designers than the overall site. This may be as a microsite has unique goals, but from a user perspective if they are used to the parent site and then arrive on the seemingly-illegitimate child site, they have to learn how to use the new site. Usabilily suffers.

Bring the orphans home, adopt these techniques

There are other ways to get at desired goals of a microsite.

If the goal is to help introduce a topic or target audience, rather than throwing them right into the wilds of the entire website, one can use multimedia content (dare I say Flash) to present a targeted, engaging introduction to this group.

If the goal is to present unique content that is only relevant to a particular group or market segment, then you can invest in technology to allow customized dynamic content based on a profile. The solution can be as simple as showing or hiding content based on user-entered parameters (eg. Air Miles offers Gold Members, once they log in, special information and offers specifically target to this subgroup.) You could also build a "hidden" section of the main site and send the link (make it one easy to remember) directly to that group. That way these unique users can get their own content and the site’s overall content, but the entire user base does not see this and get confused by it. I’ve used this latter tactic quite successfully.

If you know of how microsites can be used effectively in a corporate way, please let me know...

Monday, July 09, 2007

I write a blog, but I don't read them...

I confess that while I urge/coerce, everyone I know to read my blog, I don’t reciprocate.

I don’t read more than a handful of blogs regularly – I don’t even pour over my subscriptions in my readers with any frequency.

This confession is a result of having read and agreeing with Jakob Nielsen's article, published today, “Write Articles, Not Blog Postings”. In the article, Nielsen highlights the uneven quality of blogs:
  • Sometimes people toss off a posting in a minute. Other times they spend hours.
  • Sometimes a writer happens to know a lot about the topic at hand, possibly because they've just spent several months working on that exact problem. Other times people know nothing--which doesn't keep them from voicing their opinions :-)
  • Sometimes people are lucky and get a blinding insight. Other times they post more out of duty than anything else.
While I like blog’s conversational, personal and generally less rigid, more open style, I also like to have background information and in-depth analysis.

Too many bloggers feel required to blog regularly regardless of whether they have anything useful to say. Or perhaps blogging is just so trendy, everyone is doing it regardless of whether or not they have anything to add or any writing ability. (I live in a glass house, so I’m not throwing stones at anyone I wouldn’t throw at myself.)

Perhaps my general dislike for blogs is that in many cases blogs are about topics that I don’t care passionately enough about to justify the uneven quality and singular focus. Then there are blogs on topics I thought I cared deeply about, but then upon finding blogs on that topic, (eg. Xena or Shakira), I just couldn’t possibly care about it to the degree that the bloggers do. I also haven’t found blogs on some specific topics I care deeply about (eg. the cultural aspects of the Internet or the Web from a production standpoint – all I have found are blogs focusing on the business aspects eg. marketing, investing opportunities, etc. or are too tech-geek for me).

If considering starting a blog, Nielsen cautions (in his utilitarian way):

To demonstrate world-class expertise, avoid quickly written, shallow postings. Instead, invest your time in thorough, value-added content that attracts paying customers.

But it takes so much time to write at that level of insight and quality. I understand and appreciate the allure of the ease of blog publishing, but it is true that while a blog posting is easy to do, it may often offer minimal return.

I don't promise consistent quality or insightful value-add commentary, so to be fair to my friends and family, you are forgiven, if you, like me, just don't see a convincing reason to read the blog.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

"Meeting the global community, and finding out they are all my mother"

As I find user reviews on websites so helpful, I was eager to read today’s CNET article "A bad review for review sites" by Michael Kanellos.

I love user reviews as they have the potential to offer an honest, non-marketing hype, review of a product, place or service.

Amazon has offered customer reviews for years and I have bought products based on a good oval showing and a few particularly useful individual comments.

User reviews do tend to fixate on bitchily minute details or meander to completely irrelevant, personal anecdotes. Kanellos humorously summarizes the innate problems:
The Internet has ushered in a new era of human interconnectedness and will likely radically transform industry, scientific research and the structure of society. It's also made us into a bunch of old ladies. Perhaps no other time in human history has there been so much nitpicking. All you have to do is troll a site like for a few minutes to find a cavalcade of complaints disguised as constructive criticism or--just as bad--positive, and largely tangential, compliments… It's like meeting the global community, and finding out they are all my mother.

User reviews have also been co-opted by either the company being reviewed or users with a hidden agenda.

For example, we love TripAdvisor and have used it for years, generally with good results. I think initially there were only helpful travellers using it, but now I think companies have finally discovered it and are trying to skew it.About four months ago, we went to a resort in Mexico. We had to read a lot of reviews to find some that were not just travel memoirs or useless marketing hype. When we returned, my wife wrote a review with some positive and negative details – within minutes my wife’s review was labeled by a handful of “users” as unhelpful. I’m convinced, though I can’t prove it, that the company had its PR staff monitoring this and burying anything remotely negative. It isn’t conceivable that there were that many people, within minutes, who would have been checking out that review and would have voted it unhelpful.

The idea of flagging helpful reviews or rating them is a great way to separate the wheat from the chaff. But there needs to be some sort of IP tracking to prevent companies from skewing results.

I don’t know many people and of the few people I know there’s no one in the same boat as me in terms of life stage nor do they share the same tastes as me, so user reviews offer an excellent source of advice - that doesn't come from my mother.