Category Archives: Services

Google Buzz

Google Buzz is a social media product from Google that, as the sticker says, goes beyond status updates and allows you to share updates, photos, videos and more. It is quite an amazing tool, you can share publicly or privately through Buzz, is integrated alongside Gmail and you can connect it to a lot of other social websites to pull in their respective streams of data into your Buzz profile.

I’ve never really swallowed the koolaid though and for a long time I couldn’t work out why I wasn’t onboard, since I’m usually one of the first people to support various new Google products and then it dawned on me – it feels like it is a closed product even through it isn’t.

The whole idea of Buzz, as I see it at least, is to share and connect with people from various different social media platforms in one place. Once the initial connection is made, your group of friends and others can then comment and discuss anything you like about any of the items flowing through Buzz – not that dissimilar to facebook.

My issue with it in general is that for some reason, it feels like a closed product and that I’m writing or publishing into a vault that others can’t easily get access to. If I’m going to spend time writing something, then I want it to be in a place that others can easily find it – like a blog. While information that you publish through Google Buzz can and is crawled by the search engines, it isn’t easily discovered by other people searching on the internet; so my potential to help others who might have had the same problem seems impaired from the offset.

Google spam fighting super star Matt Cutts uses Google Buzz to post things that he thinks don’t warrant a ‘full blog post’ about. If you read through a lot of items on Matt’s site, you’ll quickly see that he typically invests a lot of effort into his writing. My thinking on that front is that, why not still publish whatever he was going to push through Google Buzz and use a different post format for it – an aside for instance. That way, he and his readers don’t have an expectation that it’ll be a hugely detailed or thought provoking piece but at least he is keeping it in his control.

I have the same issue with facebook, which is one of the reasons that I don’t spend any serious amount of time on it – especially when it comes to content development or promotion. I syndicate my blog into facebook, with the intention that if people want to discuss something about the item – they’ll leave a comment on my blog, in lieu of within facebook. I find facebook even worst, in that within a very short space of time – due to the number of connections most people have, any information that someone publishes flashes by and is lost & never to be seen again. facebook is a very point in time or near point in time product and from an editorial stand point, that doesn’t fit that well with me personally.

How do you see a product like Google Buzz fitting into the digital ecosystem? I know it is a great product but at this stage, can’t bring myself to utilise it for writing – even when they might be mostly throw away things.

Google Reader Widescreen Resolution Usability Enhancement

Google Reader interface when viewed on an ultra widescreen browser resolution
Click to enlarge

Google Reader is a fantastic web based RSS reader and I use it to read a lot of my favourite sites and also as a way to keep abreast what is happening within an industry, such as travel and hospitality.

One of the usability issues that most web designers face these days are with small screens, such as an iPhone or large screens such as 24″ widescreen LCD computer monitors. The obvious reason is that with small screens, a design has very limited screen real estate to work with and must select what information to display very carefully. With large screens, there is an abundance of screen real estate to work with, which under certain conditions and actually lead to usability issues.

Case in point, when you use Google Reader at a more moderate resolution such as 1280×1024, the interface is very usable and everything works as expected. However, if you happen to run a widescreen monitor at 1920×1200, the interface is considerably less usable as it the width of an RSS item suddenly increases by 600px. I find that when I use Google Reader maximised, that I generally find it hard to scan across to the right hand side to click the (>>) icon to open the actual web page that corresponds to the RSS item.

In June 2008, Google launched Gmail Labs – a new style of sub-product which let users suggest ideas and Google engineers contribute small pieces of functionality to Gmail that users could optionally enable or disable at their leisure. Since June 2008, different Gmail Lab features have come and gone, some have been promoted to the main product by default and others haven’t had the uptake and have subsequently been removed.

One particular Gmail Labs feature that I absolutely love is called Move Icon Column. By default, Gmail provides small icons beside certain items in your inbox on the right hand side of the item to provide a visual clue of its contents, such as chat, calendar, Google Buzz or attachment. Just as I highlighted above that ultra wide screen resolutions don’t provide the best usability in Google Reader, the Gmail interface suffered the same issue. Fortunately, Gmail has the Labs functionality and with a few clicks of a mouse button, you can move the icon column from the right to the left and suddenly it doesn’t matter if you’re using a more moderate screen resolution or ultra wide screen.

My suggestion for Google Reader to solve this particular issue is:

  1. Provide Google Reader Labs
  2. Provide Lab feature to move the (>>) on the right to the left

While the Google Reader development team haven’t answered my call for better handling of duplicate RSS items, maybe they are already working on a Lab feature for Google Reader and its on their radar already.

Google Maps Labs

In true Google fashion, they have recently extended the reach of their ‘labs’ experiments by releasing a Google Maps Labs – a place for the Google Maps team to experiment with new features that may or may not be ready for mainstream use within Google Maps.

The latest extensions available from within Google Maps Labs are:

  • Drag ‘n’ Zoom
  • Aerial Imagery
  • Back to Beta
  • Where in the World Game
  • Rotatable Maps
  • What’s Around Here?
  • LatLng Tooltip
  • LatLng Marker
  • Smart Zoom

I really like the implementation of the Drag ‘n’ Zoom experimental feature and it is something that I think I’ll definitely leave enabled. The two LatLng lab experiments are going to be very useful to people who use Google Maps a lot and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Smart Zoom make its way into Google Maps as a default feature going forward either.

To enabled any of the currently available Google Maps Labs experimental features, look for a link in the top right hand corner of Google Maps beside  your user links such as My Profile, My Account, Help & Sign Out.

Google Fusion Tables

Google have recently released a new labs product known as Fusion Tables. Google Fusion Tables allows users to merge data from numerous data sources, to deliver compelling easy to understand comprehensive visualisations of the merged data set.

The announcement for Google Fusion Tables notes that it is releasing the API for it, which integrates with a number of existing Google products such as Maps, App Engine, Base Data and the Visualisation APIs to allow for motion charts, timelines, maps with all the data running on Google’s infrastructure.

The Google Fusion Tables example video provided showcases an incredibly easy to use interface, which interleaves numerous existing data sources with custom data from the user on the fly. While that might be fine for static data sets, Google Fusion Tables also allows for dynamic data sets as well – where data can be synchronised into Fusion Tables in real time as the data is changing.

Recently Microsoft Live Labs released a similar product named Pivot, which provides similar functionality with a completely different user experience. The upfront effort for implementing Microsoft Pivot appears to much greater than Google Fusion Tables, as at least at this stage there doesn’t appear to be a way to simply upload, merge or link data together without providing that data through the Pivot architecture.

Watch this space, I suspect there are going to be some incredibly innovative uses for both products.

Google Webmaster Tools Displaying PDF & Word Document Links

Google Webmaster Tools has the ability to explore the internal links and external links or backlinks information for a given domain, instead of relying on the infrequently updated and wildly inaccurate link: operator within a Google search. Traditionally the link information within Google Webmaster Tools has displayed links, that were sourced or crawled from, what would otherwise be considered standard web formats such as HTML.

For a long time, Google has been indexing numerous non-web specific file formats such as Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Adobe PDF and Macromedia now Adobe Flash file formats. While they were indexing and ranking those documents to show up in search, I have never seen anything to suggest that Google was counting either links or plain text URLs within those documents as a ranking indicator specifically. However, while viewing backlink data for a domain recently I noticed that Google Webmaster Tools was reporting backlinks from Adobe PDF and Microsoft Word documents.

If you’re in the business of generating a lot of documents to provide to third parties, a certain number of your clients will put the document on their web site for their users. If that happens, you’ve just gained additional inbound links to your site using the link text of your choice. If it turns out that Google is counting PDF, Word and other file format links as a ranking indicator – a savvy marketer might even recommend to third parties that they upload the document to their site – for any number of reasons, least of which is search engine optimisation.

Favikon, Favicon Generator For The Masses

Stumbled onto a simple but useful free online service last week named Favikon.

As the name suggests, it is related to the small but often memorable favicon or favourite icon. For those that don’t know what a favicon is – it’s the small icon shown in the address bar to the left of the domain name, in your bookmarks and serves as a visual way to remember a domain or web site.

The Favikon generator service is dead simple:

  1. choose an existing image already on the internet by URL or upload one from your computer in PNG, GIF or JPG file formats
  2. use the web based cropping tool to highlight all or part of the image
  3. download it and be impressed with your masterful graphic ability

I realise that it isn’t mind bending, however I found it so simple that I actually bothered to create a favicon for my personal site – which I haven’t bothered to do in 5 years!

Enhancing Dopplr “Add Trip” Functionality

I recently signed up to the fabulous travel service Dopplr, which lets you share your travel plans with friends, family and colleagues. While adding in a trip from the Gold Coast to my home town of Chinchilla, Dopplr got a little confused about my destination and suggested that the Chinchilla I was referring to was Chinchilla de Monte-Aragón in Spain.

When creating your account with Dopplr, you’ve got the ability to provide the service with a certain amount of information about yourself. Among the information is a setting for your home town, which I have set as the Gold Coast in Australia. Given that my country and home town are set, I think it is possible for the Dopplr service to make slightly smarter choices when a user isn’t explicit about a destination.

For this particular trip, I left on the 20th February and I’m returning on the 22nd February. I didn’t specify that this trip was not originating from my home town, so it should assume that I’m leaving from the Gold Coast. Given that Dopplr knows where you’re originating from (even if it isn’t your home town), it’d be possible for them to calculate a relative distance between it and any destination.  If they cycled through each of the 12 possible matches for Chinchilla that they provided – they would have found that one of the Chinchilla’s listed was in the same country and state as my home town and was approximately 350km away. To a human reading that sort of information, it becomes immediately apparent that since I’m only on the road for three days, I’m leaving from the Gold Coast and there is a Chinchilla approximately 350km away that it’d be the sensible choice for the destination.

I think that small improvements such as the above are one of the key types of enhancements to a product that really sets a service apart from its competition.

Twitter Performance Problems, The Root Cause

The performance and scalability problems of Twitter have been covered to death, so I won’t wax lyrical about the different reasons that the micro-blogging service has had performance and uptime problems over the last year.

With the advent of cloud computing and inter-connected web services, the requirement to have a good quality API has just about become a must have. One of the things that an API allows is new and creative mechanisms for users to consume and repurpose your service – which by and large is fantastic. Every now and then though, people will find a way to exploit a service to their advantage – usually financially driven.

In the case of Twitter, clever folk are using the service to ‘watch’ what discussions are happening on and around the internet about a given topic. Case in point this afternoon, I mentioned the phrase “WordPress” in a tweet and I suddenly received 10 new emails notifying me that random people I don’t know are now following me.

The fact that random people are following me isn’t the concern, it is that they automated that based on what I was disucssing in a Twitter conversation. The knock on effect is that those users will no doubt be following  hundreds or thousands of other Twitter users.

From an architectural point of view, this problem quickly spirals out of control as now every message that I write, generates a notification to be sent to those users. If they had a legitimate interest in following me, no problem at all but more than likely it will go completely unnoticed and the only thing that it has really achieved is increasing the load on the Twitter infrastructure.

If users continue to abuse this type of functionality, inevitably the Twitter folk will further tighten the screws on how many people you can follow per account. Of course, then the users abusing the service will start creating multiple accounts so they can get what they want – always looking for a way to side step the restrictions.

Improve Your Site Using Live Search Webmaster Center

Virtually every webmaster has heard of Google Webmaster Tools and use it regularly to check on the health of their site, unfortunately very few know of Live Search Webmaster Center which complements Microsoft Live Search.

Recently I wrote about the significant improvements that Live Search Webmaster Center has gone through, which has really boosted the product. To put the new enhancements through their paces, it seemed like a good idea to compare what it was displaying versus what Google Webmaster Tools was showing.

Live Search Webmaster Center showed that I didn’t have anything wrong with my robots.txt file, nor was I suffering from long and complex dynamic URLs – however I did have a handful of 404 errors through the site. Live Webmaster Center had picked up that I had linked to another site without the http:// in the href attribute, like:

  • <a href=”www.domain.com/important/article/”>important article</a>

which when clicked, was delivering a 404 error on my site with a URL like:

  • http://ifdebug.com/article/my-article/www.domain.com/important/article/

To my surprise, when I explored that same information within Google Webmaster Tools – they had not picked up that I had linked that article incorrectly.

Moral of the story, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. While Google hadn’t picked it up or had just compensated for my mistake – simple mistakes like that may have an adverse effect on less capable search engines.

Google Analytics Mostly Streamlined Login Process

Google Analytics streamlined login buttonThis week Google Analytics received a small upgrade – specifically related to the login process.

Until now, no matter how often you use Google Analytics, as a user you were forced to login every time you returned to the site. It frustrates users so much that if you use Google Analytics quite a lot, it became a habit to leave a window open with Google Analytics logged in just for the simplicity.

With the latest update, the Google Analytics team are saying that you no longer need to login and that the process has been streamlined. I’d argue that only part of that statement is true, you do not need to authenticate – however it isn’t streamlined.

The majority of other Google services, once you’ve authenticated once and subsequently return – it reads in your Google Account information and you immediately have access to the service. For some reason, the Google Analytics team have chosen against a consistent authentication progress that is common amongst many other Google services and the user is forced to click a button to enter.

The process won’t be streamlined until it functions like Google Mail, Google Reader and so on. I welcome the improvement – at least I no longer need to type in my account information all the time – however since they already know that I’m authenticated, I shouldn’t need to click again to re-enter the application.