The Blog of Tom Webster

Chronic Ranter, Reviewer, and Developer. I speak only for myself, opinions are my own.

SEO: A Fake Science?

  2010-06-10 20:00:00 PDT

Disclaimer: 99% of this post was taken from a series of back-and-forth Facebook comments. The debate was extremely thought-provoking and raises some interesting questions from both sides of the fence. In the interest of the other individual, neither quotes, nor names will be posted regarding the discussion, rather, the general feel and main points of the conversation will be posted. There isn't a clear-cut victor at all, the point of this post is to get us thinking about the internet and how it is built, structured, searched, and consumed. To be honest, I thought about skipping this article entirely, as these are extremely controversial talking points among web-folk. Think about your own websites as you read on.

Recently I was involved in a Facebook debate about Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and I align with Leo Laporte in his thinking about SEO. In case you don't know what this is, I'll explain it to you: Search Engine Optimization - These con-men promise you a number one spot on Google searches and the only thing they do is change page titles. There isn't any way to game Google, but these guys con people out of hundreds of dollars at a time with a snake-oil solution.

My position is that SEO is a fake science. Sure, there are a few things to make your site more search-friendly: Change your page titles to reflect your content, put important things near the top, register your domain for more than a year, and build a site map. Guess what? These are all things Google itself suggests when you look up page rank information or use Google's Webmaster Tools. There is no magical incantation to game Google. Not now, not ever. The only way to get top results is to create rich content on a consistent basis. How do you expect to game a constantly changing algorithm? The search algorithm goes through multiple changes every month at the very least. If it were that easy to game the results, you'd only find spam in search results. SEO is utter trash. The only way to rise in search results is to create rich content, bring users to your site, and create this rich content on a consistent basis. This is also known as, the elusive and rare, "Having a decent website you actually put work into." Crazy idea, I know... From some research on Google Patents, the best way to jump ahead in Google search results is to grow your site organically, there aren't any magical keyword or link incantations or special header HTML one can call on to give your site that search boost to propel it to the top, it just won't happen. The funny thing is, SEO's make tons of money every day by scamming people out of their hard-earned cash by promising them a number one spot in search results. At one point in time, there were plenty of people making huge amounts of money from astrology, fortune telling, and alchemy. SEO is the exact same 'science'. These internet 'magicians' promise clients huge traffic boosts out of arcane, secretive methods, that are far, far too complicated for the average person to learn. I'm sure we've all heard these stories before. There are ways to help content become searchable, but a company buying out keywords from linkfarms does nothing to get the top spots from Google. Buying advertising is another thing entirely. Sure, spend thousands on AdWords, it WILL drive traffic, but those aren't search results, those are sponsored positions. Just like those (at one point) 'sciences' of centuries past, plenty of people put in plenty of time and made plenty of money, bit in the end, was anything really accomplished? No. Don't get caught up in this same trap.

Even with my beliefs, the fact remails: There are TONS of people out there that build entire careers out of becoming SEO ninjas. To them, its a real job, doing market research, finding keywords, categorizing and saving backlinks, and using all of these at the proper time to avoid being categorized as spam. They own tons of domains and use various page layout techniques and keyword frequencies to get their job done.

But does it actually work? My money says, 'No'. But it does raise some interesting questions about search engines, web design, spam, and risk management. As web designers and construction-workers of the internet, we should ask ourselves these questions:

Go ahead and post your answers in the comments, and if you want, ask your own questions as well! Questions like this are important to the foundation of the internet and how we think about search and quality content. One thing is for certain: These aren't easy questions to answer, and I don't believe any one person is qualified to answer them, but its the thought that counts.

Google Moves Away from Windows

  2010-06-02 14:29:00 PDT

So, word has been getting around that Google is officially dropping support for Microsoft Windows internally. Computers running Microsoft Windows are going to be phased out for Linux and OSX machines. Honestly... Who didn't see this coming?
Google has stated many times that the default operating system for Googlers is a heavily modified Long Term Support (LTS) version of Ubuntu Linux, affectionately named "Goobuntu". While this modified distribution has never been released outside of Google, it is in wide use and support there, and hardly a secret. That said, Windows machines aren't being done away with entirely, Google has stated that employees that really need to use Windows can acquire special permissions to use the operating system. Lets take this from a fresh angle: If all you really know how to use is Windows, you probably shouldn't be working at Google.
Lets think logically about what Google really needs Windows machines for: Windows development. Sure, they have Picasa, Desktop Search, Earth, and a few other cross-platform apps that they need to build and test on versions of Windows, but these things can easily be accomplished inside a virtual environment. The vast majority of Google's focus right now is split between Chrome OS (Linux), Android (Linux), and the web, and if recent trends have shown us anything, its that Google is interested in moving away from desktop applications altogether. Google has proven that they can take big technologies and move them to the web, and that's exactly what they are focused on. Microsoft's mission used to be "A computer on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft software.", and Google has taken a much more open stance in theirs, what their mission should be is: "A browser on every device, with every person, using Google products."
If Google were a software company first-and-foremost, this would be a huge deal, but they just aren't. Google is focused on providing platforms and services for other people to utilize and build on. Android development tools exist for every platform, and, from a personal point of view, development on Linux platforms tend to be much nicer than Windows or OSX. By keeping Apple machines around, Google is showing that they will still be developing applications for the iPad and iPhone. This is extremely important. Google doesn't want to limit who can use their products, so having a presence on their biggest competitor's device is a wonderful strategy. Google isn't interested in limiting themselves, and being browser-based is the cornerstone of their ideals.
It does seem like Google is setting a precedent for other companies as well. Showing other technology businesses that they can be free from licensing and closed, bug-ridden software. If one of the biggest technology companies in the world can do without Microsoft Windows, anyone can. This move to make their unreliance on Windows official and public seems like a power play to the rest of the industry, setting an example and forging the first path away from Windows. I'm all for more businesses relying on Linux, it will do huge amounts of good for the open source ecosystem and mentality.
Like I said before, I'm really floored that people are surprised over this, everyone should have seen this coming. Only time will tell if other companies are willing to follow Google's example and give up their Windows addiction.

Original Engadget post

We're Watching You, Facebook.

  2010-06-01 03:23:00 PDT

As you all know, a while ago I deleted my Facebook account, and it was due in part to a few things. First off, the constantly changing and ever-confusing privacy settings. Second, my postings being censored on Facebook. Third, and frankly, the biggest reason: I didn't want to encourage my friends to use a system that would put their data and privacy at risk. Well... Reason number one (and therefore number three) have been fixed. The jury is still out on reason number two, but I feel that with my continued reliance on free and open services, and the fact that I will be using Facebook for links to the outside, free, open web, that the censorship will be minimal if at all.Facebook is in a very precarious position right now, the entire tech industry and all of the major media outlets are watching them and what they do. And they know it. Zuckerberg and the Facebook executive members have come out of the woodwork to explain that they've "Missed the mark." Amazingly enough, another company that shares some of what Facebook is currently going through is Toyota. With the Prius going through numerous product recalls, the most media-laden being a braking problem due to a software bug, Toyota is feeling the consumer-distrust-pinch just as much as Facebook is right now. Although.. this doesn't have to work in the disinterest of consumers/users.
A few people have told me something along the lines of, "If I'm going to buy a car anytime in the next year, it will be a Prius.", and while this may sound absolutely insane, it makes logical sense. Toyota is being watched. By everyone. Each and every consumer, safety agencies, government regulators, factory workers. Everyone that so much as glances at a Prius are doing their part to inspect, double and triple-check the design and safety of the vehicle because of the pressure. You, as a consumer, can be guaranteed, that the Prius is going to be the safest, most inspected, most tested car of this year. Toyota can't screw it up again, it would be a death-knell for the model as well as the global image of the entire company. Toyota is walking on eggshells for a good reason and the biggest winners are the consumers.
Same story with Facebook. They've fucked up; and this time, they've fucked up bad enough to anger their entire userbase, cause a media outcry, and drive users to create worldwide movement to quit the service entirely. If any online service is positioned to lose it all over one more misstep, its Facebook. One more privacy violation, information-leaking bug, or advertising leak, and people will jump ship, and for good this time. This month, Facebook got a wake-up call from its more prominent, and more vocal userbase, and if they want to stand any chance at all at winning these users back (and keeping them), they need to be very, very, very, careful about how they go about changing policies, or introducing new features.
This is why I've decided to come back to Facebook. They really messed up, they got the attention of the entire tech world, and even a good portion of the 'normal' world's media. They can't afford to make another mistake. If Facebook even so much as breathes the wrong way, everyone and their mother will be grabbing the torches and pitchforks to put down this monster once and for all. Facebook is incredibly convenient, but at what cost? For now, I feel a bit safer knowing that the entire tech industry will be holding this service accountable for how they treat their users. Again, they haven't fixed everything, at all. There is still a huge issue with exporting data from the service. Baby steps. They've done a good thing this week, I for one hope this isn't a one-time scenario, I really want Facebook to start being a more open platform. There are some things that I will not change about my decision to untie myself from the platform, however: I will continue to use Buzz, Twitter, PicasaWeb, and other open sites for my content over Facebook. My Facebook page will serve a dual purpose: Aggregation and social connectivity. When I publish content or post images, it won't be a Facebook post or uploaded to a Facebook photo album; Facebook will be getting a link to these other places on the web. While this might be slightly annoying for my Facebook followers, I can't take the chance of any of my content getting locked into Facebook permanently. I won't do it. Congratulations, Zuckerberg, you've won back this user, but remember, as soon as you fuck up again, I'm out and I'll take people with me. We're watching you, Facebook, and you can't afford to let us down again.
Either way, none of this will matter once Diaspora comes out in September, but that's another post for another day.

The Dangers of Relying on "Vendorware"

  2010-05-28 20:52:00 PDT

In my experience, most businesses have a major reliance on Vendor Software. In case you don't know what vendor software is, let me take a quick minute to explain it (If you know already, skip the to the next paragraph). Vendor software is a software package that large businesses/organizations either lease out (on contract) or buy from a software vendor. These software packages can come with bundled software support, so if a problem were to arise, the business could call the software developers and obtain support and backup on a particular problem. This support isn't free, most of the time, and on occasion, not very helpful. The businesses that choose to implement 'vendorware' are usually lacking in staffing, technical ability, or both. Vendor software can give confidence to an otherwise technically-inexperienced business. That is the selling point, at least.
But this isn't to say vendorware is without its flaws. By the very nature of purchased, leased, or contractually-bound software, there are many many pitfalls a business can (and should expect) to encounter.

For instance:

This happens all the time in the tech industry, a start-up gets some funding, builds a ton of code, implements it, then falls apart. Its all fine and dandy if that start-up is a web-property or other piece of unwanted software, but what if it is a core component of your network? You as a company just lost your support for email/groups/calendars because a company couldn't quite keep its head above water. This wouldn't really be a problem if it weren't for my next point.

Ok, so what if Company ABC went out of business... its just an email system, lets just modify it ourselves, build a better mousetrap, and rely on our own power to get us through. Wrong. The vast majority of vendorware is contractually-bound to be non-modifiable. There really isn't any reason that you couldn't modify the code, but if you were to attempt it, the now-in-the- red company could sue you for an undisclosed sum. Most vendors don't like their software to be modified beyond their own constraints. There are a few reasons for this, some rational, some business-minded:

Verdict: Rational

Explanation: If each group of developers were made to clean up after every wanna-be computer scientist's screwed-up code, they would never get any real work done. If a business wants help and support, they need to play by the vendor's rules.

Verdict: Business-Minded**

Explanation: Take 'Business-Minded' as you want. Personally, I don't like profit margins or bottom lines, I like what works and what makes sense in each individual situation. Vendors don't want businesses building in features that they can sell later as upgrades or additional (purchasable) plugins. Want the chat feature? Only $9.95 per month added to your five-year contract! Want to attach multiple files to an email? A low low flat rate of $200 per year for this must-have feature!! This is annoying. This isn't how software should work. This is software sales at their worst.

Software vendors want guaranteed payments, strong-arming customers into lengthy, expensive-to-break contracts. Vendor software is never as simple as: Purchase software, install software, be happy. Most of the time, vendor software includes early contract termination fees, do-not-edit requirements, and various clauses designed to limit that business' freedom with the software.

If you've been around the tech industry (of have ever purchased an iPod) for any amount of time, you know firsthand that the tech industry moves insanely fast. What was brand new yesterday is tomorrow's bargain bin lining. This isn't limited to just hardware either, software changes just as quickly. While it is true that users want stability in their software, what they crave is features. For example: What worked for a robust email solution yesterday has been overshadowed by what Google Apps, or any other deployable webmail solution is today.

The point is this: The tech world doesn't stand around idly with a product that is "good enough". A company's lock-in contract with a vendor prevents them from participating in this evolution.

A beautiful example of 'slow' is a company that was having problem with their wireless network being buggy and randomly dropping wifi clients. Company A called Wireless Inc. and set up an appointment. A week later, a few techs from Wireless Inc. came to Company A to assess the situation. After the assessment, Wireless Inc. left to create a solution and would be back in a week. One week later, Wireless Inc. introduces the bug fix to Company A, and it doesn't work. The next week, Wireless Inc. sends another tech to assess the issue. The next week, Wireless Inc. attempts another patch. To make this long, drawn-out story shorter, Company A had their wireless network working 'well enough' after 8 weeks of back and forth, assessments, appointments, and many upset users. The real problem wasn't even fixed properly, it was just decided that Wireless Inc. would put in a 'Band-Aid Fix' as a temporary solution, because it was financially undesirable to solve the actual problem.

I wish I could tell you that this was a one-time scenario, but the ugly truth is that it happens all the time.

The last and most important point in why a business should avoid proprietary vendor software is that it is confusing to users. Most computer users are completely familiar with end-user tools for managing contacts, sending email, sharing calendars, and writing instant messages. Users have expectations that computers at their jobs should work as well (or better than), and as easily, as the computers they have at home.

The vast majority of the time, vendor software is big, confusing, and out-of- touch with user expectations. The systems are developed with very specific purposes in mind without considering the types of people that will be interacting with the system day-in/day-out. As a business, if your email system isn't as feature-rich or easy-to-use as Gmail or Yahoo Mail, you've already failed your employees and your users in a big way.

There are many ways to accomplish these goals, including:

The majority of these problems can be solved in two ways: Either by choosing a vendor that supports these standards, or building your own system using free, open-source tools that you can build upon and use for your business solutions. If you're looking for examples of good companies to partner with for your business tech, see the handy list below:

The Magic of Android

  2010-05-22 15:12:00 PDT

One year ago, no one would have argued that Apple was going to own and dominate the consumer smartphone market while RIM was going to continue to dominate the business world. But that was one year ago... Recent NPD numbers show that Android has pulled ahead of the iPhone in the US, but what does this mean for consumers? If you've used both Apple and Android handsets in the past year, I'm sure you've noticed one glaring flaw for Android: The App Stores don't even begin to compare. The iPhone's App Store has been around longer, has more mature (speaking of software code, here...) applications, and a greater variety of both paid and free programs. While the Android marketplace is still playing catchup, Apple is still king of the apps on this front.
Thankfully, all this is about to change. With the recent NPD numbers and the booming success of Verizon's Droid series, consumers can expect the Android marketplace to start booming, and soon. Why? Android is where the numbers are. RIM is on the decline, and Apple is slowing down. If you're a developer, where do you want to sell? On Blackberry? You app is as good as dead. Want to release to Apple? Sure, you've got quite the install- base, but... Why not Android? The install base is obviously good enough to get started, but you have one killer feature that the iPhone just doesn't have right now: An upward trend. Not only will your app be available to a respectable install base, but your potential customer base will continue to grow. Another thing Android has over the iPhone OS is that: As a developer, you are not limited to a single carrier. Develop an iPhone application that pisses off AT&T? Prepare to get banned. With Android, you are never limited to a single carrier. Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon all have Android offerings (Along with Google's own), and while, admittedly, some are better than others out there, as a developer, you should never fear that you'll be shot down because a single carrier disagrees with what you are doing on their network.
Google is constantly making their Android OS better and better with each release (Apple as well, OS4 looks to be a much-needed shot in the arm for the aging OS3), so there isn't any reason why you shouldn't be developing for a mobile platform. If I had to pick one, I'd pick Android for the pure and simple fact that Google is beating Apple at their own game. Its a great time to be a Googler, and I'm sure there are even greater times ahead.

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