Monday, December 15, 2008

How do users 'read' your website?

Recent research referenced by Jakob Neilsen, shows that web users read on average only 20% of the copy on an 'average' web page: "Scanning text is an extremely common behavior for higher-literacy users", Nielsen states.

This poses incredible challenges to web designers and content providers, as well as search engine optimisers. Why is this?
  • Firstly, Google, et al, like copy - a common rule of thumb is about 200 words on a page.
  • Secondly, you need an economy of style if you wish to convey the essential message in a way that 'scanners' can take in and assimilate.
  • Thirdly, you need to organise your copy and page layout in a way that is visually appealing and 'signposts' the essential information.
So, there's a degree of tension between writing for Google and writing for your readers. Too much information and your users are likely to skip over the important information as they 'scan' the page. A common mistake made by content providers, especially in the public sector, is to publish verbatim reports and the like on their website - great 'Google food' but not particularly usable for the average 'scanner'.

Too little copy and Google will have difficulty in properly determining your page's relevance. This is a mistake often made by traditional graphic design agencies, whose approach is to use graphical assests to 'tell the story' - a picture speaks a thousand words, etc. However, too much use of imagery to convey meaning is lost on Google, and is not very accessible.

One methodology is to use heading tags (h1, h2, etc) to 'break down' the content, providing meaningful signposts for the 'scanners' and Google, followed by short paragraphs. Start the page with a keyword rich summary, so the 'scanners' don't need to read more to get the essence of the story. The BBC website is an excellent examplar for this form of best practice.

Another useful practice is to provide your content providers with a 'content template', so that each page follows a consistent pattern. This means that your site has a consistent information pattern that ensures that users have a consistent experience, so that 'scanners' get the information they require quickly and reliably. It also means that you have some degree of control over the quality and search engine performance of the copy written by your content providers.

In the meantime, take another look at your existing website - can you 'scan' it and still get the same message over that you want?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Secure the source code

I was recently called in by a company to extend a client's bespoke Java application. The problem was that the company did not have a copy of the source code - only its compiled version. Although I was able to decompile or reverse engineer most of the source code, there remained significant gaps (missing method returns, variable declaration and the like). Such gaps equal project risks and increased costs.

This is not the first time I've encountered this problem. In this instance, it was due to a complicated history of acquisitions, mergers and managerial buyouts. During such processes attention is understandably often focused on retaining the customers, intellectual property, etc, but careful consideration also needs to be given to securing assets like application source code, documentation and the like.

Often the lack of source code is down to the buyer's ignorance - they simply forget to ask for it. Their supplier has delivered a robust and working application, are on hand to support it, and everybody is happy. Why would they need something they don't know what to do with?

However, companies come and go, and you should always secure a copy of any code that is deployed on your servers, or on your behalf, if possible. Sometimes suppliers are reluctant to provide it, due to copyright and intellectual property issues. Appropriate licence restrictions and caveats should overcome these problems, however. This is a core issue with regards to business continuity planning and the like.

My web design and development company provides a copy of all the code we've developed once all outstanding invoices have been paid, should the client desire it. We are usually able to do this in part because we use Open Source Software whenever appropriate.

This is one area where Open Source Software (OSS) comes into its own. Distribution of the source code is not normally a problem - when you use OSS you usually get the source code, albeit with some restrictions regarding reselling it as your own, etc. In this way, your company's software investment is protected to a degree, since you can always get another supplier to fix/support your OSS application.

Whether your application is built using OSS or not, you should always attempt to secure a copy of any source code when a supplier has provided a bespoke application for you. In these uncertain times, this is of more relevance that ever.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Dangerous Celebrities

If you run your business from home and have teenage children using your PC, then your PC is particularly at risk. You've probably got an adult filter setup, but celebrity searchers are also being targeted by virus writers.

Top targets are currently Brad Pitt & Justin Timberlake for the men, and Beyonce and Heidi Montag for women (or vice versa). Cybercriminals attempt to persuade searchers to visit fake sites with the offer of free ring tones or wallpapers. These spammers and virus mongers also use social engineering techniques to persuade users to open emails which contain trojans and the like.

So, educating your users is essential in the online battle to protect your PC from being compromised.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thoughts on the Credit Crunch #1

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Harpo Marx
We're all Marxist Brothers now, and we should look back to the late 1920s and 1930s as we navigate these uncertain times.

On Monday Alastair Darling made his pre-Budget announcement of measures to deal with the credit crunch. Key headliners was his cut in VAT from 17.5% to 15% and expansion of Govt debt to some £1/2 trillion to provide an economic stimulus. The Tories reverted to type, calling for tax cuts and, in effect, spending cuts as it warned against growing Govt debt. Osborne also called on the Govt to sort out the banking crisis by making the banks lend to consumers and businesses again - a bit rich coming from the party of city deregulation for the last three decades.

However, Osborne did have a point about the banks. The bankers are behaving like truculent teenagers. First they threaten mass suicide if they don't get what they want, and now they've locked themselves into their bedrooms and are refusing to come out and join in the family meal. The Guv'nor of the Bank of England, Mervin King, sounded like an exasperated parent when uttering his threat that the banks might be forced to start lending again. Yet King's quiet candour is a warning that the Govt's bailout is far from resolving the banking crisis. This is deeply troubling, especially since the British response has been the template for others facing similar problems elsewhere. If the bailout fails, then all bets are off.

Tax cuts, while welcome, do seem to be somewhat irrelevant for the following reasons. The credit crunch is a result of systemic failure, with loss of consumer confidence a by product rather than a cause of the crisis. Also, the fact that heavy in-store discounting of 20-30% has not boosted consumer spending does rather question the effect that a 2.5% reduction in VAT will have on high street spending. Furthermore, set alongside the collapse in the value of Sterling, which will mean that the price of imported goods will more than wipe out the VAT cut, this VAT cut will probably be of even more limited long term value. A nice news story in the run up to Christmas, but this recession is for longer than Xmas.

However, Darling was correct in pointing out that the Tories response - tax and spending cuts - was reminiscent of their policy during the 1980s recession. However, what he missed was that Thatcher used, and even prolonged, that recession for a social engineering and political restructuring project that aimed to permanently weaken the Labour movement and emasculate the Labour Party. This recession will be different because it is centred in those sectors - financial services, etc - that arose from the ashes of the early 1980s. While the slump of the 1930s and the recession of the 1980s were centred in the industrial heartlands of Old Labour, the chill winds of this recession will be felt throughout the land and will probably be more egalitarian in its promiscuity than its predecessors.

Labour should, however, be careful to look back into its own history as it confronts this crisis. It was the Labour Party's hidebound adherence to economic orthodoxy that sidelined it during the turbulent 1930s. The danger is that Labour repeats its mistakes by again resorting to orthodox measures in an unorthodox crisis. The first thing to recognise is that the credit crunch is on a par with the financial crisis of 1929, indeed it might surpass it in terms of its immediate impact and long term scope.

There are other disturbing parallels with the 1930s. Then all the bigger players were sidelined by events. America retreated further into an impoverished isolationism, British retrenchment reduced further its dwindling international standing, and German collapse and Italian adventurism destabilised Europe. The rise of authoritarian and expansionist regimes in Europe and the far east were one response to the world crisis. Today, the US is involved in two deeply unpopular foreign wars, and its own financial crisis will inevitably lead to a degree of foreign disengagement. Meanwhile, relations with Russia have steadily deteriorated whilst the resurgent Russian establishment looks to restore both pride and hegemony along its European borders. Events in Georgia have inevitably made Russia's neighbours wary, especially in the Baltic states where sizable Russian populations live. Russia is also throwing its energy fuelled weight around, looking to 'leverage' its energy resources in its foreign policy. There is little reason to doubt that Russia will not use America's distraction to its own advantage.

While none of this necessarily implies a repeat of the political and diplomatic tensions of the 1930s, we should be cautious of the possibility that an incident along the borders of the Balitc states quickly spirals out of control. A feasible scenario is that in such a situation Russia might attempt to use its gas resources as a blunt bargaining weapon with its EU neighbours. It's to forestall this possibility the the EU is now attempting to build a 'southern' gas pipeline beyond Russia's borders, but this project will not complete for some years yet.

In such a situation Britain would be incredibly vulnerable. The security of our energy supplies is more perilous now than it's ever been. Once self sufficient in energy, we are increasingly dependent on foreign supplies. We have around only two weeks gas supply in reserve for example. Even a particularly long or arduous cold snap would bring us to the brink of an energy crisis. If Russia choose to turn off the gas, we would not be well placed to respond and would quickly be confronted by power cuts, cold homes and public disquiet.

Here though is an opportunity for the Govt to address several issues at once - economic stimulus, energy security and global warming. It would require the Govt to undertake unorthodox measures and would run counter to their deregulatory tendencies.

The Govt should announce a war on fuel poverty and global warming and launch a publicly funded campaigns for fuel efficiency and energy renewables. The first thing it could do is engage unemployed quantity surveyors in a massive energy efficiency survey of Britain's entire housing stock. Every house found to be wanting in loft insulation, for example, would be insulated forthwith, regardless of income. This would be a mandatory scheme and would provide an immediate payback in terms of energy savings on an individual and national level.

The next aspect of the campaign would be a massive investment in wind and wave technology. The stimulus of Govt investment would kick start the renewables sector in the UK, providing us with an opportunity of gaining a technological and manufacturing lead in this vital sector. I would personally argue that national emergency should override the planning process and nimbyism, with wind farms popping up all over the place, on and offshore. The economic stimulus of such a package might be sufficient to keep Port Talbot operational for example, particularly if the Govt specifically favoured UK like-for-like suppliers (on ecological as well as economic grounds).

Finally, the Govt should embark upon plans to increase the UK's gas stocks, so that we have more security regarding our energy supplies.

Within 5 years we might be in a situation when the economic travails are over and we have something positive to show for it if the Govt adopted such a policy. While we won't have achieved economic self sufficiency, we will have helped those in need heat their homes more economically, reduced our reliance upon non-renewables and gained a technological and manufacturing lead in a vital new industry.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bye, bye Woolies?

Woolworths' 800 UK shops are on sale for £1!

Once a bastion of the British high street, and the cool place for teenagers to hang out, Woolies is in discussions with Hilco to sell its UK stores for a nominal £1. Squeezed between tat merchants and internet retailers, Woolies lacked a branding strategy that could hook into its history and use it to appeal to a new generation of shoppers.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Open Source breakthrough

A new report by Gartner suggests that 85% of industries in the North America, Europe, and the Asia/Pacific region - including a cross section of small, midrange, and large enterprises - have adopted open source software (OSS). It also reports that the remaining 15% are considering adopting it.

Why the breakthrough for OSS? Well, the need to reduce spending is reported as a major cause, much the same reason why Linux made its breakthrough in the IT recession of 2000-1. OSS is currently being used in web, print, email and customer facing applications. It is also being considered for ERP, CRM type applications too. It seems a safe bet that OSS will be considered for future projects as a matter of course as the need to retrench on IT spending continues.

Our web design company has been using OSS for over 5 years now. Many of our client's websites are powered by the Joomla! CMS, their databases run on the OSS database MySQL. We've also deployed the OSS CRM SugarCRM, as well as a myriad number of smaller applications and code snippets.

We use OSS for much the same reasons as those surveyed by Gartner - cost, flexibility and quality. Perhaps its time for you to consider the same reasons for using OSS?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Adios Yello Pages?

I recently reviewed my web design company's Yellow Pages advertising. Essentially, I've had the feeling for some time that the Yellow Pages book was anachronistic for certain services like website design. So, I reduced my company's advert to a smaller, simpler format, much to the salesman's dismay. When he left I got the distinct impression that this was was not an uncommon experience for him.

Lo and behold, when the new book recently arrived, nearly all the web design companies had similarly reduced their adverts. Indeed, there are fewer adverts, so many were now either out of business or had stopped using Yellow Pages altogether.

The recent figures released by Yellow Pages show that our decision reflects a near universal trend. Yellow Pages is losing out, with sales down 9.4% and spend is instead going to, up by 23%.

Decline almost always develops a momentum of its own, as falls one year feed into and precipitate further falls the next year. So we may well be witnesssing the end of the beginning of the end for Yellow Pages. But then this also raises the question of what next for Despite reporting rising user figures, I suspect that is riding on the former ubiquity of Yellow Pages for an older generation. How many people under 30 use over, say Google?

It may be that the very forces that are behind the decline of Yellow Pages will also do for too. Local information remains important even in a globalised world, and the ability of Google and others to provide targeted localised results erodes the value proposition of

Monday, October 20, 2008

Flash worries

Flash it a little bit like Marmite - you either love it or hate it.

We've always had a tendency to avoid using Flash. Mainly because it is harder to optimise for the search engines and also because of accessibility concerns - but also because we've never taken the time to master it.

A recent victory in the US for three blind plaintiffs (who argued the use of Flash on the retailer's website,, made it inaccessible to screen readers and thus discriminated against the visually impaired - Target will have to payout some £3.4 million) adds weight to the case against Flash websites.

So, next time your web designer mentions redesigning your website in Flash, ask them to think again.

Woe, woe & thrice woe!

Woe, woe & thrice woe (www). It's on the internet that retailers will need to focus in order to ride out the worst of the downturn.

There's little doubt that we're now in a recession, whatever the official stats tell us.

OK, so what do we do? Well, as consumers reign in their spending, and search ever harder for bargains, the evidence is that it's increasingly online that their money will be spent. Marks & Spencer are just one of many reporting a growth in online sales alongside a decline in sales through traditional retail outlets.

If this recession is longer and deeper than the optimists predict, it will see a shake out of high street retailers, but those with a strong online strategy will be better placed to survive. Indeed, it may be that for some the internet comes to replace the high street as their main outlet.

Not too long ago, a website was seen as a peripheral sales channel - an addon for the switched on retailer. Soon the bricks and mortar shop will double up as a warehouse for the online shop(s) as internet sales see a decisive shift to predominance. The high street is where the window shopping will occur while the transaction is done online.

Some smaller, independent clothing retailers have already reached this position, using ebay to shift the unshiftable and their own websites to retail to increasingly price sensitive customers. Their physical shops are now provisioning hubs for their online outlets, busy with actual shoppers only one or two days a week. Soon shop assistants had better be web aware as they will be spending a fair amount of their time online dealing with online orders and customers.

Where retails leads others will follow. Do you have an online strategy or an online shop? Whatever your answer, contact Fresh Web Services to see if we can help you ride out the recession.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Is your business seasonal?

Sometime ago we developed an online shop for a client selling feminine hygiene products. The shop was oriented towards organic and specialist products - such as the Mooncup - that are not readily available on the high street. The shop also sells eco-friendly sanitary disposal bags too.

What our client has discovered is that small offices, guest houses and the like are grateful for finding a supplier of sanitary disposal bags in affordable quantities. Rather than having to buy such goods by the pallet, our client offers them in the 100s. As a significant number of her customers are guest houses and small hotels, etc, our client has also discovered that part of her business is also seasonal.

So, when researching for your next business plan, ask yourself if your own venture might have a seasonal aspect to it? School holidays, for example, will have a significant effect on demand patterns, Xmas and Easter too. Are there other seasonal peaks and troughs in demand that you need to be aware of?

Friday, June 20, 2008

LiveLink WCM Woes?

Does your organisation use the LiveLink WCM from OpenText? If so, you are no doubt aware that OpenText announced the demise of LiveLink WCM - they are no longer selling new licences for the product and are instead selling RedDot as their CMS of choice. The product itself will only be supported for another couple of years and OpenText are suggesting a migration strategy towards RedDot for existing LiveLink WCM users. Whether RedDot is an improvement on LiveLink WCM is a mute point at this stage.

As you are also no doubt aware, finding skilled and experienced LiveLink WCM developers has never been easy and has always been expensive - somewhere between £800-1300 per days is typical. Unfortunately, finding LiveLink resources is only going to get harder as suppliers desert the product in favour of the next big thing (which probably won't be RedDot!).

In order to fill the gap, Fresh Web Services are offering existing LiveLink WCM users a support plan that will enable you to continue to maximise your use and ROI from your LiveLink WCM investment while you consider your long term options. From a little under £500 per day, we are offering a 5 day per month support package* - this includes template development, scripting, etc. From a little under £600 per day you can alternatively purchase a 3 day per month support package*.

So, contact us here at Fresh Web Services and talk to us about our LiveLink WCM support packages. This is a golden opportunity to buy your organisation some breathing space while you consider your CMS options.

* minimum 12 month contract.

School Prints website goes live

Leicestershire web design agency Fresh Web Services have launched another online shop for Goldmark Art Gallery. School Prints offer a fabulous range of original lithographs from the famous postwar school prints project, which aimed to provide original art for school children in an affordable fashion.

Goldmark have also commissioned a series of original short films that explain the project and each individual print. These alone are worth the visit to the School Prints website.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Home Insulation Internet Marketing

Some three months after taking on the internet marketing for Home Energy Savers, their website now scores page one Google rankings for some of their main keywords such as insulation grants. We've also reduced the number of blank forms sent by simply adding some client-side validation.

So, the site is now on page one of Google for core keywords, so can we ditch Google adWords? Not yet we can't! Although the number of leads generated by 'natural' search engine results has improved markedly, PPC still remains the main source of leads.

This is a fair reminder that weaning off adWords is a slow, patient process. that requires more than a single strategy.


Fresh Web Services launched the The 2 Lucys website today. The 2 Lucys have just launched a new product, 'no sweat soffritto' - onions cooked in olive oil until they’re soft and sweet, combined with fabulous herbs and spices to create the base for truly fabulous food. The 'no sweat soffritto' are available in three flavours - zingy lime and coriander, warm spices and apricot, and a bit of a kick chilli - in Sainsbury, Morrisons and Tesco.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Rainbows Children's Hospice

The new website for Rainbows Children's Hospice is now live. Rainbows is the children's hospice of the East Midlands, UK.

Rainbows approached Fresh Web Services, a Leicestershire Web Design & Development company to build them a new online shop. Half way through that project, Rainbows also asked Fresh Web to also build a new website, with a Content Management System (CMS) which another company had promised but failed to deliver.

So, we used the new design and created their new website using the Joomla! CMS. This enables the staff at Rainbows to keep their website up to date and includes a form creation wizard so they can build custom forms, etc. We believe that we have delivered an internet platform that will enable Rainbows to generate even more revenue online to help sustain the much needed service that they provide.

Rainbows is now launching a new 'Build for the Future' appeal to extend the size and range of services they offer. Their new website and online shop are integral to this new endeavour. Fresh Web Services are pleased and proud to have made a small contribution to this effort.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Cavity Wall and Loft Insulation Grants

Internet marketing: Home Energy Savers commission Fresh Web Services to manage their online lead generation service using Google adWords and organic search results. The campaign is based around keyword phrases such as government grants, insulation grants, cavity wall grants, loft insulation grants and solar heating grants. The goal is to treble the number of leads currently gained while also reducing lead acquisition costs.

At the moment the website is not optimised at all, and has a very low page rank. This means that to date the client has been entirely dependent upon adWords to generate leads - an expensive existence. Therefore we're adopting a twin track strategy - initially we're trying to maximise the efficiency of the adWords campaign, splitting one large campaign into smaller, more focused campaigns. Simultaneously, we're starting to optimise the website itself, and build a linking strategy - this is a longer term strategy, but will eventually result in more and cheaper leads.

Watch this space!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

gagaprinthouse is live

Leicester web design agency, Fresh Web Services, have just published a new online shop selling the best in contemporary urban, street and graffiti art from artists such as D*Face, O. Jago, Panic, Priseman and Swoon. Check it out at

Ecommerce stupidities

I have an account with one of the larger football club's online shop. I've just ordered a gift for my son's birthday & thought it a good idea to update my profile before checking out, after all, I've recently moved and changed my email provider.

A simple, straightforward scenario you would think. Not a bit of it. I wasn't allowed to change either because I have an 'order history'! That's right, because I've ordered before, I can't now change my home or email address.

What a crazy situation. Now my order confirmation is going to a dead email address - probably not too much of a problem? However, the home/billing address no longer match - so that might mean my payment will be refused! On some ecommerce sites, card validation includes address verification. Hmmm!

I've now had to email the shop to ask how to change my email address, etc! How's that for enhancing the customer experience!

The only response that I've had from this site was a reply to my moan email telling me that my order had dispatched. Not impressed.