Improving the Website News Experience

There are a lot of great things about Twitter. One that sticks out to me is how often the service breaks news stories. When a Twitter user learns of something or sees it, a few taps can relay that news to hundreds of thousands of people as quickly as you can send a text to a friend. It’s phenomenal. Another great thing is Twitter’s ability to act as a live blogging platform, of sorts. For those who are on Twitter, it’s a great way to get filled in by someone who is witnessing a news event unfolding first-hand.

When you go to a news organization’s website, however, you don’t get near-instantaneous news. Most of the time, you get someone rushing to update a post in a CMS each time something of note happens. The front page of a news site hardly captures the sense that news is happening everywhere, every second. It shows whatever someone typed up 5 minutes ago, or an hour ago, or even half a day ago. Newspapers have a cutoff before they go to press, and they’re printed on paper. That content is static. They have an excuse. A website does not.

It’s 2012, and visiting a news website still feels like it did in 2002. These pages don’t feel alive. They don’t do enough to pipe in content that someone is rushing to put out with their thumbs. They don’t try to include people who might not be reporters, but are on the scene nonetheless. There’s an awful lot of “don’t” without any signs of “do” now or in the future.

I toyed with this the tiniest bit using the @Hashburg account (that I tried not to annoy people with), but I wasn’t pleased with the results I was getting using existing platforms and tools. The idea was that certain hashtags (#news, #weather, #traffic) were being searched for within a 25 mile radius of Harrisburg, and those tweets were being retweeted automatically. My goal was to eventually collect these tweets and present them in an easy-to-read format on the Web. But that was going to be more static, and lacked the human curation I feel is necessary. It was not at all what I envision now.

So here’s my pitch. If you’re a dev, designer, or someone interested in contributing to a project that does not compete with but enhances current news offerings, shoot me an email – shawnfarner@gmail.com. In the meantime, I will be trying to transfer what I’ve been whiteboarding into something that is a bit more clear and a bit less babblish.

The Way Things Are

“Instead of being able to SEO the entire Internet, businesses can now only affect the search results for a tiny percentage of users. That’s a good thing because SEO can’t scale, and SEO isn’t good for users or the Internet at large.”

That statement came from Google employee Jonathan Rockway, though he later backtracked and said he meant to type something else (Matt Cutts disagreeing might have had something to do with that). I wish he had doubled down on his statement. In fact, I wish Google had come out as a company and backed him up. Everything he said was absolutely, positively correct.

Google’s job is to deliver the best search results possible. Your job is to be the best match for a user. If you aren’t the top result for a particular search based on Google’s algorithms (which are getting smarter every day), you should not be able to manipulate the results. And I feel this way even though I work for a Web design/marketing company and SEO/SEM is increasingly working its way into my job. I feel conflicted.

That conflict is the subject here. I think it’s a good thing. If you feel it too, in some way, you’re on the right track.

If you aren’t constantly at odds with the way things are, you don’t care enough about making things better.

Google+’s Minus

With a change to the new user registration flow, Google+ now has a more prominent place in the Googleverse. Now, instead of creating a Google+ account after you’re a registered Google account user, profile creation happens during the regular Google account setup process. It’s kind of a big deal.

You have to figure that the likelihood of a user poking around G+ rises significantly when they’re forced into signing up, rather than being given the option after the fact. The number of G+ accounts will go up as Google registers more new users. Add this to the fact that Google+ now has a very visible role in Google’s search results, and you get the sense that Google is going to do everything they can to make G+ succeed.

The problem is, they don’t seem to be putting a lot of emphasis on creating active users. They’re not doing their best to make the Google+ service addictive. One thing they should be putting a lot of focus on is mobile.

With the launch of the Galaxy Nexus smartphone, certain Google+ features, such as Circles and Hangouts, are being advertised as phone features (finally, an Android partner is learning how to sell features instead of specs!).

Brilliant.

For its own version of the Android OS, Google is in a unique position to include as much or as little of Google+ as it wants. Google needs to bake G+ into every nook and cranny of Android, and have Android serve as G+’s Trojan Horse. If mobile users get hooked on some of the features, Google might be able to coax them over to the desktop version of G+, where those features already exist. But mobile is where I think Google can really plant the seed of addiction.

The Galaxy Nexus commercial was good, and it was a step in the right direction. But Google and the manufacturers using Android need to continue down that path of thinking and keep pushing Google+’s best parts as Android phone features. Get users doing Hangouts, get them sorting contacts into Circles, get them talking over Messenger, and then do a better job at putting those features in front of them on the bigger screen.

The Future of SEO?

I actually tweeted this article out into the WebDrafter Twitter stream yesterday (which I’d love for you to follow if you’re not already!), but I wanted to take a closer look at it and examine some of the possibilities.

An Australian site called StartupSmart published an article yesterday titled “5 SEO Trends to Lookout For in 2012.” Being someone who works at the intersection of social media and SEO on a daily basis, it was of particular interest to me. I want to go through each bullet point from the original article and give you my take on whether or not I think that particular change will manifest itself this year.

“Social media will be an even bigger factor in Google’s algorithm.”
The safest bet of the bunch. Social is already a bigger signal in search engine results than some would care to admit. Google’s search engine is only getting smarter as time goes on, and Google is starting to realize that, as good as some of their algorithms are, humans do a better job filtering the junk and curating the best content. 2012 will be a big year for social in search, no doubt.

“The search results page will continue to feature less organic rankings and more paid.”
Google puts a lot of focus on usability and simplicity. While the search engine results pages have gotten a lot more busy since Google first started out, I can’t see them reaching a point where paid search ads outnumber organic search results. In fact, I believe some of the newer formats Google is trying out are meant to increase conversions and revenue without having to put more ads on a page.

“Paid search will become more important in supporting SEO efforts.”
With the rise of “not provided” in Google Analytics, good keyword data is going to be a bit more difficult to come by — unless you’re also running AdWords campaigns. This one is a definite.

“Spammy SEO practices will get targeted even harder.”
What SEO is becoming is what it should have been all along — a process to make a site the most quality result for a keyword search, not through spun articles or conveniently-phrased keywords, but through genuine usefulness, with legitimate link and word-of-mouth endorsements through other websites and social media. The march toward this eventual goal is only going to continue, and Google will leave a lot of bloodied, down-ranked sites in its wake.

“SEO will become even more competitive than ever.”
This is going to be the year SEO and SEM as they are known today start to die. Search engine optimization companies that are skilled at developing great content  and online relationships on behalf of their clients will thrive. The multitude of companies who add more useless content to the Web will see what little success they’ve had start to vanish.

Thoughts? Shoot me a tweet (@shawn).

Five reasons to replace your iPad with an Android tablet

I was a Mac at one point. I’ve also owned an iPhone, and I’ve owned both the original Wifi-only iPad, the original 3G-enabled iPad and a Wifi-only iPad 2. So to say Apple hasn’t won me over in the past is simply untrue.

Unfortunately, I reached a point where the beauty of these devices (in both hardware and software) could not make up for how severely hampered they are.

In no place is this more apparent than in the world of tablets. Here are five of the major differences I see — differences that can also be viewed as major selling points for Android tablets running Honeycomb.

  1. Flash.
    You knew this was going to be here. Flash is a major selling point for Android tablets. Granted, I’m not sure how many consumers know exactly what Flash does — they don’t know what Turntable.FM runs on, they just know that it works in their PC browser and not on their iPad. While iPad users are clamoring for app-based workarounds for Flash-based Web apps, Android tablet owners are busy rocking out.
  2. Widgets.
    Apple is fervently against having widgets on the iPad home screen and I’ll never understand why. On the iPhone home screen, sixteen app icons don’t look out of place. The iPad’s screen real estate could be put to better use, though. Google and Android’s app developers alike have done a great job implementing and taking advantage of widgets as a way to give you important information at a glance.
  3. App/operating system synergy.
    Apple keeps developers on a short leash when it comes to iOS. Remember: until last year’s release of iOS 4, Apple’s apps were the only ones allowed to run in the background. Android does a much better job at making apps feel like they’re part of the operating system, both in terms of multitasking and system-wide integration. This integration also allows apps to work with other apps — tapping the “share” button inside any app is a perfect example of this. Using the Pulse app, for example, I can share a story as a note through Google Reader, or as a tweet through Twitter… or through many other different apps.

  4.  The limitless possibilities of “open.”
    I teetered back and forth between the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer and the Acer Iconia before finally dropping the $399 on the Iconia. Why? Its on-board USB port, which opens up a whole world of possibilities. Last night I played Tecmo Super Bowl using an NES emulator (yep, Android Market has those) and a USB gamepad. Yes, Honeycomb recognized a USB gamepad. I’ve also been able to connect a USB keyboard/mouse combo to the device and operate them successfully. But so much more could be done, and Google does not stand in the way. These tablets are wide open to be used as you see fit — open on the operating system side and open on the hardware side. Your tablet is truly your tablet.
  5. Speed of innovation & the Google home field factor.
    Google is one of the fastest-innovating companies on the planet, if not the fastest. Many will point to this as a major flaw in their approach to Android — after all, they’ve pushed out a lot of updates and fragmented Android’s user base across a number of different OS iterations. I’ve brought this up and complained about it in the past regarding Android phones, but the problem does not seem to be as prevalent on Android tablets (so far). The current Honeycomb tablet lineup features stock Honeycomb installations — no skins — so updates are coming much faster. Google has been ahead of the curve on many tablet features and, with Apple releasing major OS updates once a year, they’re only going to increase that distance.The Google home field factor is the big difference-maker and is the reason I’ve moved completely to Android, both on my phone and on my tablet. The implementations of Google apps on Android are phenomenal, specifically Gmail, Google Maps and Google Sky Map. The fact that Android is Google’s OS means you won’t have to wait for updates — if they’re ready, you’ll have them. No app store middleman.


There is one area I’d love for Google to improve in, and I think the photos give you a pretty good idea of where I’m going with this.

Screenshots.

Apple makes this very easy, but I can’t take a decent screenshot on any Android device without root access.

So, did I make some good points or am I just plain wrong? Let me know.

Google+ reality check

Look, I like Google+, too, but the number of people experiencing plust (plus lust) is astounding.

I still have a ton of Twitter tweets zipping down my real-time TweetDeck column and I still have Facebook friends sharing everything from their thoughts on the latest nerdy wizard movie to sonogram photos of their unborn fetuses. Yet, over in Oz+, every other social network has apparently been defeated and Google+ reigns supreme.

Worse yet, there are already experts popping in to teach people how to use this not-even-one-month-old social network — a social network that is, if anything, at version 0.634 and will continue to have changes and improvements made to it before the doors are opened to the world at large. And if the past few weeks are an indicator, the changes will be rapid. Knowing that, does Google+ really need a paid webinar at this stage in the game?

People are abandoning their Twitter/Facebook accounts for Google+. They’re also forwarding their URLs (the URLs that used to belong to their blogs) to their Google+ profiles. Tech and social media luminaries are astonished at the number of comments their posts are getting and say they’ve never seen anything like it before (that happens when you crash land on an island full of geeks). It’s a lot like the praise once heaped upon FriendFeed before the celebrinerds slowly crept away and re-joined the Facebook/Twitter parties.

All I’m asking is that you try to keep an even keel. Amidst the cries of “Facebook killer” and “Twitter what?”, some people need to be reasonable. You can be excited about Google+ — I’m certainly excited about any area Google tries to innovate in — but realize that Facebook and Twitter aren’t going anywhere. The initial Google+ trial is the first battle in what looks to be a long war. Rather than take a side, I’m going to watch from afar and plot my next move.

Crisis or epiphany? My quarter-life something

I’m in a bit of a funk right now.  There’s really no tiptoeing around that fact.  I could list the reasons why and that list would run a mile long, but it inevitably comes down to one thing.

I miss freedom.  And I miss the uncertainty that freedom brings, because sometimes, uncertainty is the catalyst for your most exciting memories.

I’m not one who enjoys being still.  Quiet nights at home?  I can deal with them but I’d rather not.  Give me a sport to play, a movie to watch or a random car trip, please.  Maybe I’ve got some serious ADHD going on?  I don’t know.  At this point, I just thought there’d be more. But here I am, at 25 – working every weekday, crashing when I get home, and going out on the weekend to forget about the past five days.

I despise this cycle.  Falling into it has left me feeling like I’ve given up, like I’m not living life to the fullest.  And I understand, sometimes this path is necessary.  It’s a sacrifice you make to pay your way through night school or put food on the table for your kids.  I, however, have no such tie-downs, so I’m left wondering – what on Earth am I doing?  The answer?  Trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.  Trying to make my wishes and desires conform to what the world thinks is “responsible”.

Somewhere in between my usual outing downtown on Friday and reading Vagabonding on Saturday, it hit me.  Things have gotten far too routine for me to bear and I need to do something drastic.

By the time this post goes live, I will have given my two-weeks’ notice.  I will go back to freelancing and consulting from home, just as I did last year – but with a twist.  My work is location independent, and I plan on taking advantage of that.  Fully.  I’m not handcuffed to a desk here or anything.  What’s stopping me from working from the library or a cafe?  Or, to be a bit more wild… Thailand?  Nothing really.

So here I go.

Abuzz has arrived!

For the past three months, there has been one constant in my life: my Abuzz project.

I played with what I felt was the final version about two weeks ago and ultimately decided to hold off until a few more things were added.  The features in question were features I had planned to issue in a later update but instead found vital to what became Abuzz 1.0.  I’m thrilled to say that Abuzz is now in the App Store.

If you plan on downloading the app, I would love to get your thoughts on it.  Be sure to shoot me an email – shawnfarner [at] gmail [dot] com.  Also, check out the official Abuzz web site over at AbuzzApp.com.

Finally, I’d like to thank Louis Gray for this great writeup.

I’m hoping to develop Abuzz past what everyone has seen so far – I won’t be satisfied until it’s a must-have for iPhone owners.  I encourage you to ping me with ideas for features you’d like to see in updates.  Email, call, text (717-884-9763) – it’s all good. :)

Thank you all so much,

Shawn

What’s next?

With Abuzz development winding down (after a small delay), I’ve been wondering what project I’ll take on next.  This isn’t to say that Abuzz won’t be improved upon and future releases won’t come out – the app will still own some of my life.  But what will own it after that?

I could do another iPhone app.  I have some ideas I’ve been kicking around and it doesn’t look like anyone else is doing them.  Plus, after Abuzz, I feel confident that I could manage such a project and do so more smoothly.  That route is open, but I’m currently looking in a different direction.

I want to do something disruptive.

Why you should send me a t-shirt

T-shirts are fun little conversation starters.  If I’m not wearing something utterly ridiculous (my “I <3 Hot Moms” shirt, for instance… that photo isn’t me, by the way), I’m probably wearing a shirt from a Podcamp or one with a Web 2.0 company’s logo.  When it’s the latter, I’m essentially a walking billboard for that particular company.  I don’t mind though – hell, I got a free shirt.

You wouldn’t believe how many people have asked, “What’s socialmedian?” or “What’s Strands?”  A guy behind the counter at a gas station in Hershey once asked me what BarCamp Harrisburg was.  And because I love this stuff, I don’t mind talking a bit about it.  Have I sent potential users to any of these sites?  I really have no idea.  There’s no Google Analytics for real life.  The potential is there, though.

So send more shirts out to more people.  Don’t just give them away in the Bay Area – send them everywhere.  You’ll generate some good will and possibly create an evangelist for your product.  If you want an example, look at this post.  I was more than happy to link to a few companies and I’ll be more than happy to talk about them in the future to anyone who asks.

How much did it cost them?  One t-shirt.