Archive for August, 2008

RSS via email: Are you pro or con?

August 28, 2008

Many sites (including this one) offer the option of receiving updates via email for those who don’t use RSS readers. Usually, a daily email is sent out (in the middle of the night, in my case) containing the previous day’s post or posts. It’s a good way to keep up with a site without having to remember to visit it.

However, there’s debate whether that many people really want this – after all, don’t we get enough email?

So I’m putting the question out there: Have you ever subscribed to this service on a website? (And I’m talking about RSS email updates, not site newsletters.) Why or why not? What do you see as the pros and cons?

News flash! Web users have no patience

August 27, 2008

I found this story on BBC News online a few months ago: web users are becoming more “ruthless”, according to a study of web habits. 

The point is that more and more people are going to the Internet for a specific task, not to linger or be entertained. The story says that many users are annoyed by the extras that many sites have added, such as applications and widgets (I would add gratuitous Flash videos to that mix), that just add weight to the page and make it slower to load.

(As an aside, remember the early web pages with grey backgrounds, default text colours and only the odd, very compressed picture? Think of how quickly those would load on our faster computers with faster bandwidth. Does it really make sense to take advantage of almost everyone being on high-speed by adding so much weight that page load times are slower?)

The lesson? Don’t let “fun” design extras get in the way of helping your users find what they want, quickly.

SEO basics

August 26, 2008

How do you find information on the web? Do you go directly to a site that offers the type of information you’re looking for, or do you do a search?

If you’re like most people, it’s probably the latter, especially when it comes to how-to content.

Search – and by search I mean Google, which dominates the market – is a key traffic driver online, and capitalizing on people’s searches is a good way to increase traffic to your site – traffic that you can hopefully turn into regular visitors. The way to do this? Search engine optimization, or SEO.

Basically, Google sends automated bots around the web to “read” pages and catalogue them for the search engine. (This process is why new content doesn’t appear immediately in Google – the bots haven’t gotten there yet.) They have a formula for ranking pages on different search terms (the words you type in when you’re searching for something) and the higher-ranked pages will show up closer to the top of the results when you search, resulting in more clicks and more traffic.

SEO is the process of making your pages more appealing to Google. Some of this is on the code side and in the site architecture, but a lot has to do with the actual words you use on the page. Computers have limited appreciation for subtlety, so you have to make things very clear for them. (Really, what we’re doing here is redesigning the Internet in the image of Google, but that’s a discussion to be had over drinks.)

The truth is, no one outside Google really knows the exact formula of how pages are ranked, but we have a pretty good general idea. Just search (!) for SEO and you’ll find pages of results on how to optimize your content. I’ll also be covering various aspects of SEO over the coming months – if you have any specific questions, please drop me a line and I’ll do my best to answer them.

How long is too long?

August 25, 2008

It’s generally assumed in the online world that web articles should be kept short – after all, web readers have the attention span of a gnat. Zainab Zakari at the New York Review of Magazines disagrees in an article that goes over studies on attention spans, actual site statistics and his own anecdotal evidence.

On the one hand, I think short and to the point is good: the bulk of my online reading consists of scanning articles and rarely making it past page 1. But on the other hand, when the time and place are right (usually a Saturday morning browsing the Globe), I’ve been known to spend a good 20 minutes to half an hour reading one long, in-depth article. So what do web readers really want – and what should you be providing them with?

Well, the answer is probably both. There’s no need to exclude long features from your site if you think people will want to read them, just because the prevailing wisdom pushes short web articles. But in highly scannable pieces (service or how-tos), where readers are looking for you to get to the point, it doesn’t hurt to cut the excess (especially in repurposed content) and make the story quick to read.

What are your online reading habits when it comes to length?

Web essentials: Have a site that works

August 22, 2008

It seems obvious, but it bears repeating: there’s no quicker way to lose readers than by having a site that a) is too slow or b) doesn’t work (whether that be broken links or something more complicated like malfunctioning logins).

Web readers have a pretty limited attention span, unless they’re really, really looking for something specific. Think about it: How often has it happened that you’ve clicked on something interesting, waited about 10 seconds for it to load, given up and moved on? You may not have thought about it much at the time, but for the owner of that site, that was lost traffic.

The key is to not bite off more than you can chew. Know what you’re capable of and do it well. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t dream big – just make sure each step is implemented properly before moving on to the next.

Growth reported in online media aimed at women

August 20, 2008

There was an interesting article the other day in the New York Times about the growth in online media aimed at women – second only to politics, apparently. 

They profile a woman called Heather Armstrong, who runs a blog about motherhood at – and makes enough money from it that she and her husband don’t have to work elsewhere. 

What I find interesting is how she is doing so well despite not “playing it safe” like magazine sites tend to do:

Ms. Armstrong of Dooce says readers come to her because she is more honest than glossy women’s magazines. “It’s really raw and unfiltered, not run through a committee of 12 people who need to approve what you say. It’s the real deal,” she said.

That does not always go over well with advertisers. When Ms. Armstrong used a lewd phrase in the subtitle of her blog, two family entertainment companies removed their ad campaigns from her site.

“I thought that was awesome,” Ms. Armstrong said. “I knew an advertiser would pull out, but I think advertisers are beginning to understand that people come to my Web site because I do that — the reason I have eyeballs is because of my irreverence.”

The question is, in the long term, is it better to cater to advertisers to protect your revenue or to cater to readers for better traffic growth? Can you do both?

Why you need RSS

August 19, 2008

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on why your site should offer RSS feeds, I want to share some of my thoughts on personal use of RSS.

As I mentioned, I took a while to start using RSS (procrastination, to a certain degree) but once I did, I became a convert. It has made my web browsing a lot easier, helped me not miss out on things, and lets me browse more websites than I could before in a similar amount of time.

So what is RSS? In simple terms, it’s a collection of updates from your chosen websites. In Google Reader, the tool I use (although it’s certainly not the only one out there), I can subscribe to sites that offer RSS feeds and then scroll through new content as it comes in and click through to only those items that interest me. I can also bookmark (“star”) content to save it for later and share it with others. Here’s a screenshot of my page so you can see what I mean. (As you can see, I subscribe to this blog.)

If you don’t read a lot of websites regularly (or don’t want to) then RSS may not be ideal for you, but if you’re like me and like to stay up to date on news, blogs, competitors’ websites, etc., then I recommend trying RSS out and seeing how you like it.

Mobile content at Rogers

August 18, 2008

Jump on over to Canadian Magazines for some stats on the success of mobile publishing at Rogers. I have to admit, as a new iPhone addict, I would love to be able to get content from my favourite magazines in mobile format so I can read it on the subway (magazines get all crumpled in my purse). I’ve been loving the New York Times iPhone app: you can download articles ahead of time so you don’t need a network connection to read them. (The app’s not perfect yet, but a few more updates and they should have it nailed.)

Any other smartphone users out there? How do you make your media portable?

Why your site needs RSS

August 18, 2008

RSS feeds (identified by the little orange square icon you see on many sites and blogs, including this one) have been around for a while, and while they’re very popular with many people, they’ve really yet to take off with a wide audience. However, I do believe that any website with regular content updates should have them.

(But first, a sidebar. If you know nothing about RSS, you can get a quick overview at, um,, or a longer look at The Writer’s Technology Companion.)

I admit, I was a little slow to start using RSS feeds. But once I made the switch (I’m a Google Reader user, by the way), there was no turning back. Now, there are few websites I actually visit directly – most I access only through the RSS feeds in my reader. The efficiency of browsing content this way also means that I can “read” many more sites regularly than I could the old-fashioned way.

But the most important thing? If I find a new site that looks promising, I’ll sign up for their RSS feed. If they don’t have one? Well, it’s likely that I’ll never return. And I’ll hazard a guess that a lot of other RSS addicts feel the same way.

The question is, of course, why this should matter if only x percent of potential readers (where x is a pretty small number) are this devoted to using RSS. The answer is because there’s a strong overlap between these readers and the power users of the Internet, the ones who will link to you from their blogs and post your content to social bookmarking sites such as Digg, Delicious and StumbleUpon. Don’t underestimate the power of a few well-placed links; they can increase your site’s traffic dramatically. (Converting that traffic into regular readers is another matter, of course, to be discussed in a future post.)

Do you use RSS? Do you agree or disagree with what I’ve said?

Another blog at Toronto Life

August 14, 2008

A month and a half after the demise of many of’s blogs, it looks like they’ve launched a new one: Opening Soon, which follows chef Teo Paul as he works toward the opening of his new restaurant Union. The blog was promoted in today’s Toronto Life Preview newsletter.

It’s an interesting switch: while the first set of blogs was written by magazine editors and contributors, this one is by a “real person” (aka non-journalist). I’m curious how much Paul is being edited and whether this blog will gain the popularity the others apparently didn’t.

Would/will you read it?