Three Ways of Looking

I recently spoke at a conference for the Western Alliance of Independent Camps (waic.org). Each of my sessions was a live critique and consultation for a summer camp web site. Most of these sites have been up and running, serving as primary online identities for their camps for years. They work because they have to.

One reason for their problems is a lack of vision. They are great camps. Each one had something very special about it, a very strong directorate, and a great staff. What they lacked was the ability to understand their sites as others see them.

Who are these others?

As a Machine

Google, for one. How does Google see your site? Of course, I did the “turn off the images trick” to reveal what the machine sees. I always talk with my clients about what I learned through Bruce Clay’s invaluable SEO Training. Usually I hand out my condensed version in what I call the Anticonsultant SEO Cheatsheet. Most have not considered how Google approaches their site.

Looking deeper into the SEO issues for camps I found that there weren’t any camps at the conference that appeared on the first page for any of their keywords (branded terms excluded). For one well-respected camp in Colorado, “colorado, summer, camp” turned up only aggregation sites in the list. In fact, it became obvious that these aggregation sites have squatted all over the SEO space, putting themselves in between Google and the camps and holding their keywords hostage. We spent some time talking about opportunities to band together with other camps to form their own aggregation-type sites–and pulling their support out from under the aggregation sites themselves. In effect they are paying these companies for little more than making a wall between them and their users.

As a User

Online users have more in common with each other than they do with the camp subject matter experts. Heck, that’s why they want to go to camp anyway. Get away from it all. One look at the amount of early 21st Century Flash slide shows on these sites let’s one know that consultants and designers have more influence on them than their users. Few have watched their sites being used by users. Most would be happier if it would all just go away.

As a Friend

This for me was the eyeopener, perhaps the most valuable and most recent development in my thinking. What is on your site that you would recommend to a friend? This is the simple way to think of making contact with the social net. When you have a friend, you know that you make yourself more valuable to them by recommending things to try that they wouldn’t have known themselves. Things that have value themselves. Aside from contact information and forms to download, most of these sites are devoid of things you need.

It’s too bad, really. These camps have many pieces of specialized information to offer. Kids and adults learn a lot when they go to camp. Not just through experiences, but how to light a fire, how to identify plants, how to etc etc. and in some cases very specialized information that few others offer. What are ways these camps can show their value to an online audience using the social network as its means?

This discussion lead to others, but one of them was a look at the struggle between leading a camp and participating in the online world. To many of these camp directors the online world is just about as far from their interests as possible. Necessary, but boring and counter to their own strengths and the strengths of their camps. This is a critical issue for consultants in all fields, but in this one it is set off in the most stark manner. Pull the camp director out of the woods to become a specialist in the ever-changing online world.

Pantheon

While taking the Bruce Clay SEO Toolset training last month it hit me that I have built myself a Web Pantheon for people–from the past whom I’ve either met or have seen lecturing–who have had a significant impact on my concept of the Internet and its function.

Jakob Nielsen (1997)
I attended an early N+N usability conference in SF that included Bruce Tognazzini. JN’s imperative to make usability an integral part of Web design struck a chord with me, but the conference left me cold. I would continue to watch UseIt.com, but would no longer have much patience for “Jakob’s first rule of anything”. Too bad, because there is a lot of good information there, it’s just painted with stink.

Edward Tufte (1997)
That same year, I went to see Tufte speak in SF. I had been a fan of his work since I did time in a Berkeley design bookstore called Builders Booksource. What Tufte tells us is something that we can apply to the Web. Tufte knows relatively little about the Internet–and that’s okay. His clarity regarding graphical information and communication is universal. (See the fantastic book called Envisioning Information)

Dan and Al Whaley (1997-8)
Dan and Al were the founders of Internet Travel Network. ITN was my first true dynamic Internet experience and the first time I cracked $50K. At ITN we worked with their proprietary scripting language called QuarterMaster–it didn’t work very well with JS, but it had an elite force of programmers supporting it. Something like Force 10 From Navarone. This father and son team had worked through the original Waiters on Wheels site, using a template/db-based approach in the earlier 1990s. ITN became the first company to put travel reservations on the Web. Two smart, but regular, people doing something that had never been done before. Working there set the foundation for my understanding of dynamically created sites. Jeez, we sure made enough of them.

Brewster Kahle (1998)
I think I saw BK at a CNET conference in SF. If not, it was in New Orleans in a similar timeframe. Kahle was the first one to get it into my head that we have an upcoming crisis in keeping track of what he called “our digital heritage”. Moving on, as I did, to Cornell University, the situation became clearer when I interacted with people associated with the National Digital Science Library (NSDL) and the Cornell Library. We have been able to count on paper as a high fidelity record of our past communication, but now it is being deleted like Henry Miller novels in a Nazi book burning. At that point, Kahle was making recordings of the entire Internet regularly on something that would fit on a couple of 500USD hard drives.

Paul Ginsparg (in abstentia, 2003)
Although I didn’t meet Paul at Cornell when I was Director of Web Communications, his arXiv.org has rippled through my life. So close enough. Paul was a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient for 2002. His idea was relatively simple. Make research more accessible by publishing it online and without peer-review (although arXiv.org is moderated). In this case, peer-reviewed journals had a strangle hold on the content coming out of science research. arXiv.org blew the lid off and started publishing nearly everything that came its way. It became a “precipitating factor that lead to…the open access movement.” Of course I would like to see OA go as far as possible into the world of publishing. I see copyright’s flaws as one of the primary inhibitors to growing human knowledge.

Bruce Clay (2008)
As I said in the beginning of this post, I had this realization in a Bruce Clay training session. I wrote Nielsen, Tufte, Kahle, Clay. And then I started to think about Mr. Clay. Here is someone clearly very smart, systematic, etc. He is approaching the Google algorithm scientifically. There was a primary idea that I got from him, that had the typical “re-shaping” effect all of these pantheon members have had on me. It is this: Google is navigation. It is more important than your nav bar. People don’t start at your site, they search for it. When they search, they want to go to the precise page that will address their needs. Of course, if they don’t find it, it’s possible to reposition them within your site, but more than likely they are going to back out. Optimizing the site for search is more important than making the site useful to one who has been dropped from the sky.

So, that shifted my thinking, but then I couldn’t help pity Clay for the time he must spend on divining the Algorithm. It’s not that he’s trying to find the cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s. He is trying to find out something that someone already knows. It’s not science at all, it’s Cryptology. He’s trying to break the code (in the nicest way he can to preserve the relationship with Google, of course). If the algorithm were open he could focus his methods elsewhere.