From the Cold Room to the Cloud: Amazon Web Services (AWS)

Back in the day (the 90s), the servers were kept in the Cold Room. This was a floor devoted to rows of black boxes on racks that served up our web pages. They would sit there, seemingly inert, until something went wrong. Then the cry would go out “the servers are down!” and the techies would disappear into the Cold Room to fix the problem.

The downside to having physical servers in your office is obvious. You need to keep them secure and safe. Your technical staff is tasked with maintaining a physical asset. They spend their time unboxing and installing new equipment. And you’re limited by the amount of space you have. You can only serve up so much web. Too much traffic and your web site goes down.

Russell Heimlich, web developer at Billy Penn, illustrated this problem – and a solution – in his recent presentation on Amazon Web Services at the January WordPress DC Meetup.

He used to work at US News & World Report. The biggest thing they do all year is their issue on college rankings. Millions of parents and students check it out to find the best universities in America. Back when Yahoo was relevant, the web portal ran the college issue as a featured link on their home page. The US News site crashed within four minutes, their servers unable to handle the massive spike of traffic.

The solution is to have a more flexible hosting environment than boxes sitting in a cold room. For many organizations, that is Amazon Web Services (AWS). Instead of unboxing equipment, web developers set up servers virtually in the AWS environment, pointing and clicking on a grid until they have the idea solution for their hosting and traffic needs. Rather than serving web pages off your servers, you’re serving them from Amazon’s. While Russell made it look easy, it’s an expert-level tool that is customizable and complex.

However, AWS is so robust and efficient that it powers much of the social media and network services that we think of being in the Cloud. But the Cloud is not magic. It has been configured, set up and hosted by humans. Rather than working in the cramped confines of the Cold Room, developers now play in the infinite spaces of the Cloud.

Color is Subjective: All the Colors of the Internet Presentation at WordPress DC

None of these colors actually exist.
None of these colors actually exist.

There comes a moment in web design when, inevitably, everyone argues about color. The blue is “too blue” or the pink is too “candy-colored” or the color palette of the page is “too corporate.”

These conversations always struck me as a little absurd because I knew that a color on my monitor looked different than your monitor and different still on my Mac at home.

At one place I worked at it, the test was just to make sure it looked good on the boss’s PC which ran Internet Explorer – didn’t matter anywhere else.

As a photographer, I see it with my photos. I use Safari as my web browser, in part, because my Flickr photos look best there. The colors seem dull in Firefox.

Beth Soderburg confirmed my suspicions about color with All the Colors of the Internet, her presentation to the August WordPress DC meetup. Go view all the slides. They’re fascinating, if you’re interested in design and human psychology.

None of us see color the same way. Beyond the fact that some people are color-blind, or can’t see certain colors, there’s also the fact that color doesn’t really exist. It’s not a physical property, but just our perception based upon available light. Is your red vase still red in the dark?

Since color is subjective, designers should not depend on colors to convey information. A button that turns yellow when you click on it is not enough of a signal – not everyone can see that yellow. Use a checkmark or some other visual cue.

And if you’re a web designer, practice color acceptance. Your design may look perfect on your Mac with your calibrated display. But the colors are going to look different on a Droid. You’re just going to have to live with it.

If You Suck at Mobile, You Suck at Life

Digital Analytics June 4 symposium

According to a recent Harris Interactive study, 63% of consumers who encounter a bad mobile experience from an organization also believe that the organization’s other channels (web, telephone, in-person) will also be disappointing.

In other words, if you suck at mobile, you suck at life. Consumers judge an organization by iPhone. Does your site work on this mobile device? Does it use a responsive design? Can you do everything on a device that you can  do on a computer?

That was one of the key insights that stood out for me at Harnessing the Power of Digital Analytics for the HIPPOS, Honchos and Home Team, a symposium put on by the Digital Analytics Association in Rosslyn, VA.

This half-day workshop delved deeply into how individuals and analytics teams can demonstrate how carefully analyzed and reported data can improve the performance of whole organizations, not just websites and digital resources.

Speakers included Rudi Shumpert (Adobe), Kevin Novak (2040 Digital), Steve Mulder and Michelle Bellettiere (NPR), JJ Cramer (Foresee), Amber Zaharchuk (Maas Media) and Brian Keefe (ICF International/ NCI’s Smokefree Project).

The statistic on mobile use came from Kevin Novak’s presentation. It underscores the primacy in mobile when it comes to delivering customer experiences. A good web site is not enough anymore – you need to provide a great iPhone/iPad experience as well.

Over the past five years we’ve gone from no one having a good mobile device to everyone having a great one. Mobile users don’t just use their devices when they’re away from home. iPhones and iPads have become a “second screen” experience, used while people sit on the couch watching TV. You no longer have to get up to use a computer to check something online – you can do it with a swipe of your iPhone.

Mobile devices have also fostered the rise in social media. As awesome as these social tools are, they’ve moved digital executives away from what’s most important: usability. Actually looking at web analytics restores that focus. It can guide the team to identifying and fixing problems on your web site. Every team should have a digital analyst. The Digital Analytics Association provides certification and other forms of training for aspiring analysts.

But it’s still a very new field. We’re swamped in data from user interactions and only just beginning now to understand it. Nearly every organization is in the early stages of trying to make sense of their own usage data.

National Public Radio (NPR) provides an example of what the future looks like. With stations around the country, just getting everyone to use Google Analytics was a challenge. Steve and Michelle from NPR created a standard analytics dashboard for station managers, focused on two simple measures:

  • Is my audience increasing?
  • Is my audience becoming more engaged?

This is a great example of using data to drive decision-making. As they mentioned during their talk:

Data without analysis and storytelling is like food without taste.

It’s the responsibility of analytics professionals to not just report the data. It’s up to them to find meaning in it.

Data offers objective truth. You may not like that people aren’t visiting the CEO’s blog but the numbers don’t lie. Smart organizations will use this information to adapt. They will evolve from relying on HIPPOs (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) and make decisions based upon what’s revealed in the analytics.

Thanks to Foresee for sponsoring my attendance for this fascinating forum.

The Cynic’s Guide to Government Contracting

There’s an interesting post by Ben Balter on why government doesn’t use open source. It’s a good read, in which Balter presents all the reasons why government doesn’t use open-source software for its web sites, from the demand for enterprise solutions to a desire to avoid transparency (really).

Why is government so bad at building web sites? Why do they frequently build nonfunctional monstrosities like healthcare.gov, with its price of $840 million (and growing)?

Because there is no Web Department in government. There is no Web Development Corps of dedicated usability specialists, designers and editors. There is no government-wide web strategy.

Instead, government web sites are built ad hoc, created by individual agencies with wildly varying degrees of competence. Some are good. Others look straight out of the 90s. There is no standard design nor is there a standard platform. Instead, every agency builds what they want, with only a cursory nod toward the needs of the public.

These web sites are largely built by contractors, with names that sound vaguely Greek, like Synergos, or sound high-tech, like Advanced TechnoData Inc (ATDI, for short). These companies exist solely to win government contracts. They’re experts at it, and form and reform, based upon government requirements. If there’s a contract that asks for a small, disadvantaged business with a transgendered Intuit at the helm, then that company will come into being.

In their protean stage, these companies are little more than a sign on an office door and a web site filled with stock photos of happy tech workers. To succeed, they have to win contracts. For that, they have specialists in responding to Requests for Proposals (RFPs). These specialists are expert at analyzing RFPs and then parroting back the requirements in the most convoluted and voluminous manner possible. These responses go back to government, which analyzes them, and then selects the lowest bidder.

Congratulations – your company has won an RFP. You promised you’d build a web site. Now you have to hire the people to do the work. Why don’t you have them on staff? Because you have no money to pay anyone until you win a contract. So, you go out and hire them – quickly. You want them on site and billing, so that you can get your money.

But it’s hard to get good help, especially when it comes to developers. You do the best you can, optimizing for speed and price over skills and experience. Better to get a cheap developer today then spend six months trying to woo top talent.

You created a beautiful Gantt chart, one with different colors for every week of the web development process – and it’s all gone to hell. Recruiting takes longer than anticipated – people have families, other jobs and they can’t start immediately, as much as you want them too. And just getting them into a government building is a chore – you need a person just handling the paperwork. Getting your staff computers and software from unresponsive government IT departments takes even longer.

Along the way, you decide on a Content Management System (CMS). Maybe you were strongly encouraged by the government CIO. He goes to big conferences sponsored by big software companies, ones that he hopes to join. He has a preferred CMS.

So, you ask your developers, “Can this CMS do what we want?” Of course they say yes – what else are they going to say? Their jobs depend on it.

You spend months in the planning stage. Wireframes are presented to rooms full of feds. Designs are revised endlessly. Everyone offers opinions but authority is elusive.

You move forward, months late. The build phase is a trainwreck. It’s where plans collide with reality. You find out you can’t put a button there and that the slideshow isn’t Sec. 508 compliant and that it’s not clear who’s going to write all this content anyway.

But the money is flowing. Your people, though they may be frustrated, are billing 40 hours a week. The COTR (Contracting Officers Technical Representative) is happy. His job is to make sure that the money is being spent. It’s a game where you don’t want to have any funds left at the end of the year.

Dog and pony shows are put on for senior management. You don’t show them the actual site (which doesn’t work) but you show mockups to people working on Blackberries.

Developers work late into the night hacking the thing together. It’s a big mess of ugly code, workarounds around workarounds, but it should hold up, provided you don’t get too many visitors.

You launch. It doesn’t suck. It works, kinda. You have a pizza party in the break room. The developers are surly, as if they hate the site, the process, you, everything. The feds hardly seem to notice their new site. And the public, well, their emails of complaint go into an unmonitored inbox.

While the web site may not be perfect, and it may be impossible to update (thanks to your CMS choice), the important thing is that the money was spent. It’s good enough for government work. The thought cheers you, as you pull into the driveway of your McMansion, paid for with taxpayer dollars.

You Do Not Need an Expensive SEO Consultant

SEO Consultant. $2k a month minimum.

This advertisement popped up on top of my Gmail. I saw this and thought: I am in the wrong line of work. Apparently, search engine optimization is so much in demand that you don’t need to state your qualifications or the benefits of your service – you just tell customers what they’re going to pay.

As someone who has worked on web sites for more than 15 years, I’m going to tell you a secret:

You do not need an expensive SEO consultant.

The practice of search engine optimization is based upon the belief that you can optimize web site content so that it shows up higher in Google’s search engine rankings. This is correct. There are simple things that you can do to improve your rankings, such as clear writing, good page titles and being consistent in how you describe your content. Most of the SEO practices that work revolve around words – the content of your site. Why is that?

You cannot outsmart Google.

Over the years, a variety of discredited practices have been employed by unscrupulous SEO consultants and shady web site operators to improve their site rankings. In the beginning (the 90s), this meant hidden text, where you hid a bunch of text in your site, visible only to search engines. Later on, it was the manipulation of meta-information, the descriptors of your site. Then, most maddeningly of all, it was keyword stuffing – where you repeated the same keyword over and over again in attempt to convince Google that your site was the authority on that keyword. For example, “The Acme Hotel is the best hotel in South Beach among all South Beach hotels, all South Beach hotel experts agree.”

A whole industry grew up around this practice called content farms – they produced low-quality, repetitive content that succeeded (for a time) in garnering top search engine spots on almost every topic.

But then Google changed their algorithm, killing off this industry.  Their mission is provide searchers with the best content. They don’t want to send people to crap. They employ some of the smartest techies on the planet, much smarter than a content farm owner or a slick SEO consultant. There is only one way to beat them:

Write content that people want to read.

This is a simple idea that’s rarely practiced. Instead of investing in good writing, organizations post dry reports, self-serving press releases and jargon-choked product descriptions. They end up with a web site no human would want to read and then wonder: how come we’re not #1 in Google? It’s an outrage! We need an SEO consultant!

You don’t need a consultant. You need a writer. You need someone who knows your customer, someone who can look at your organization from the outside and determine what it is that people want. This information can be found in your site’s analytics – what are web site visitors searching for? It’s probably not your annual report but is instead something simple, like a price list or store locator or if a widget comes in blue.

Start there, with this unsatisfied need that visitors have expressed. Write pages that answer these questions. Skip the SEO consultant and, instead, write content that people want to read.

 

Migrating WordPress: Yea, There's a Plugin for That

migrating WordPress

How difficult is it to migrate a WordPress site? It’s not.

Russell Heimlich managed to explain import/export from a WordPress site plus how WP content is organized, potential problems you might run into during migration, solutions to those problems and how to import from other CMS. All this was covered (plus questions) in less than an hour at the WordPress DC Meetup.

It’s all covered in Heimlich’s Migrating WordPress presentation.

Migrating an existing WP site is easy – you go to Tools and export your existing site. And then import it into your new site. Even myself, with just a basic knowledge of HTML and fear of all things database, was able to figure it out.

And this being WordPress, there are plugins for everything else you could want to do, from exporting your widgets to doing a massive find and replace on your new site. There are even plugins and other tools for importing from other CMS like Drupal.

WP is #1 in usability and the backend is easy to navigate as well. Why the whole world doesn’t use WordPress is a mystery to me…

I'm Not That Joe Flood

I am the Joe Flood who wrote Murder in Ocean Hall, a mystery set at the Smithsonian.

I am not the Joe Flood who wrote The Fires, a new book on 1970s-style arson in the Bronx.

Why do I mention this? Because I’ve gotten a couple emails from editors of well-known magazines asking for information about my book.

But they think I’m the author of The Fires. I’m not. And a quick look at my site (like in the about me section) would reveal that. While I’m a writer, I primarily write fiction.

I’m surprised by a couple things:

  1. So, nobody reads web pages carefully? Not even editors? They just skim until they find what they’re looking for? I imagine these editors did a search on my name, my site popped up, and they emailed me, assuming that this must be the right person.
  2. Everyone blindly trusts Google to know their wishes? Search engines can’t read your mind. You can type in “Joe Flood” but it might not be the right “Joe Flood.”

Ironic, this lack of reading comprehension and digital literacy from people who work with words on a daily basis.

What's the Best Content Management System?

wordpress screenshot

Highly subjective, of course, but what’s the best content management system that you’ve used? I think that the best CMS is the one that gets out of the way, that allows anyone to easily write content for the web site. Someone should not have to learn HTML, or how servers operate, or spend days in training just to add a press release.

I’ve had the fortune/misfortune to work in multiple CMSes. Here are my impressions:

WordPress – Maybe not technically a CMS but so simple to use. WYSIWYG window, you click publish, that’s about it. I use it for my personal site, joeflood.com and also used it for a blog while I was at NOAA. I literally trained people in how to add content to the blog in fifteen minutes. My favorite. This is ideal for people looking for a simple platform to blog. Continue reading “What's the Best Content Management System?”

Planning: The Key Step in Selecting a CMS

Went to “Evaluating Content Management Systems” last night. This meetup, put on by Web Content Mavens, featured David Hobbs who talked about CMS review and selection. David mapped out a five-step process in evaluating content management systems:

Vision -> Plan -> Pilot -> Implement -> Maintain

His talk concentrated on the first two steps of this process and the importance in planning before settling on a CMS for your web site. Continue reading “Planning: The Key Step in Selecting a CMS”

USAJOBS vs CBO Job Site

Too much exposure to USAJOBS has really turned me cynical. Despite news reports on the need to recruit thousands of new employees, the main federal jobs site is a usability nightmare, unfathomable to even people who work on web sites, like me. While the site has few defenders, some have argued that it has to be that way, because it’s the government. Federal requirements dictate its complexity and difficulty.

There’s got to be another way! And there is. It’s the job site for the Congressional Budget Office. The site is a model of simplicity and common sense, where you can apply for a job in minutes, rather than hours. Let me spell out the differences between the CBO site and USAJOBS:

  • It’s all one site.You’re not bounced to a separate organizational site to complete a whole other application, like you would if you applied for a job with Agriculture from USAJOBS.
  • An easy password. You don’t need a complicated ten character password with upper and lower case letters plus numbers.
  • Upload or copy and paste your documents. Choose which is easier for you – either upload a Word doc or copy and paste your resume. You don’t have to enter information job by job. Supporting docs can also be uploaded.
  • No KSAs.
  • Job descriptions less than a page long, in plain language.
  • No confusing instructions to fax or snail mail in additional information. It’s 100% online.
  • It’s well-designed. The site makes excellent use of white space and provides strong visual cues for users, such as making the “Submit Application” button blue and placing it at the bottom of the right-hand menu.

Why can’t the rest of government do this? The site is not complicated, in fact it looks like it was designed in the late 1990s. But it’s simple and easy for visitors. It’s oriented around their top tasks, as good government sites are supposed to.

Looking at this site, USAJOBS makes even less sense to me.