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April 8, 2010

The case for a mobile friendly website

In 2007, it was estimated that 36%-40% of the world’s population carried a mobile device giving us an estimate of 2.4-2.7 billion people carrying at least one phone. At that same time several writers projected that based on current growth estimates, sometime around 2010 to 2012 (depending on who you asked) we might hit 3.3-3.6 billion mobile devices.

Well, here we are in 2010 and according to a UN report published in March 2009 it was estimated that there were already 4.1 billion mobile phone subscribers  at the end of 2008 (60% of the world population), with the fastest growing country being… Pakistan.

Additionally, it was noted that there had been a clear shift from fixed to mobile cellular phone use and that in the same reporting period there were over three times more mobile cellular phone subscriptions than fixed telephone lines globally. Two thirds of those mobile phones are found in the developing world compared to less than half in 2002.

Why does this matter?

Because among Gen Y (and younger) and throughout many parts of the developing world the cell phone or other mobile devices are becoming the first device of choice (or necessity) for interacting with the Internet, for making online purchases, for banking, etc… South Korea, a country considered to be at the leading edge of digital communications is a place now where nearly everything is done through your cell phone and the simple idea of getting a plastic card to use for purchasing is archaic and offered as a courtesy option to banking customers who think they might be traveling out of the country.

This leads us to another thing to be aware of when you look at that graph above. The racing climb of mobile devices also represents a growing class of web users that may be visiting your website, buying your products, trying to get customer support.

It was estimated that in 2008, the number of mobile Internet users had reached 1.05 billion, surpassing the number of PC web users (1 billion) for the first time ever.

The natural questions become, why isn’t your website mobile friendly? And, if you’re doing any kind of e-commerce, why isn’t your store front not only mobile friendly but able to accept payments in the common methods of payment frequented by your customer base?

If you don’t have the answer, your business could be in trouble. Even the best established business relationship or brand loyalty can dissolve in the blink of an eye when there is a major change in the way society communicates.

You can see this taking place right now across all aspects of the publishing world. Non-Internet based media companies have spent the greater part of decade trying to figure out how to apply their business models to Internet communications rather than the other way around. For example let’s take the contemporary case of the newspaper classifieds. Classifieds were the mainstay of newspaper revenue for over a hundred years in the U.S. but they were never a perfect process for users. Limited words, fees, trying to figure out what days you wanted your ad to show up… these things all presented challenges to customers using the service. Then a very basic website called Craigslist showed up which was free to read, free to post (short of fees for job postings and some services) and had no real limits on word counts or listing durations. Within a few short years the classifieds industry was decimated and many newspapers soon found themselves going out of business because they could not or would not adapt.

So let’s bring this all around… in short everything I’m talking about here relates to location and convenience. These fundamental elements have been key to business success since the dawn of time. Real-estate agents get it “Location, Location, Location!”. Traditional marketing people get it “Go to where the customers are”.

People are on the web, people are using their cell phones to use the web. People are using their cell phones for the majority of their day to day communications when you take in voice, SMS, web, chat, gaming, etc… Do your children have their own cell phone? Does each child have their own cell phone? When they grow up to be a consumer, will your company be positioned to communicate to them in a way that they expect to be talked to or are you simply expecting them to learn an archaic way to talk to you based on how you talk today? When you get that Fax with their answer let me know.

Get it? Good. Next you need to actually have something relevant on your website for visitors to see when they get there on their cell phone, but that’s another conversation all together.

My thanks to the following resources for my data:

  • http://communities-dominate.blogs.com/brands/2007/01/putting_27_bill.html
  • http://www.itu.int/newsroom/press_releases/2009/07.html
  • http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/25/technology/25iht-mobile.html
  • http://wapreview.com/blog/?p=3019
  • http://www.tomiahonen.com/ebook/almanac.html
  • http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/03/newspapers-and-thinking-the-unthinkable/

July 4, 2009

Lost frames of reference… Part 3: you put the phone where?

Filed under: General,Historical Rant,Technology Rant — Tags: , , , , — Bryan @ 10:37 am

Since we’re on a roll talking about telephone technology let’s branch out.

The most obscure phone device that more people have seen than used is the acoustic coupler. Did you see the movies WarGames or TRON (boy talk about dated references eh)? These days, these are probably the most likely place people will see an Acoustic coupler in action. Back when you had to lease your phone from the Ma Bell and when most people still had rotary dial phones (instead of Touch Tone based phone systems) someone figured out a bright idea for how to connect two computers together over a phone line.

The acoustic coupler was a device that most commonly plugged into the serial port on your computer and would convert the data sent to it into audio tones. It would then pulse those tones over the phone line where the recipient computer would record the tones and turn then back into data to be processed (in many ways it analogous to data storage via audio cassette tape on early computers, but that’s a whole other subject). You would dial the phone manually and tell the person on the other end to put their receiver on their coupler and set their computer to receive. Then you put your handset on your coupler. Once the computers were connected you would start data transmission.

After the AT&T/Bell break up I mentioned previously, people eventually had the ability to plug any device other than a Bell telephone into the phone network. From there you saw modems that you just plugged the phone line directly into. These modems would also be able to issue the dialing tones to initiate a call and would be able to monitor the line for a ring in order to provide an unsupervised answer (this led to the dawn of home computer run Bulletin Board Systems). The last progression was to move the modem directly into the computer as a board that plugged into a slot. Less and less people are using modems now with the spread of broadband internet services. Although in very remote locations where the only communication is a old style telephone landlines, some people still use modern acoustic couplers that run off the USB port. As cell phone tethering becomes more prevalent though this too shall likely pass.

Another soon to be lost piece of one common phone technology are RF based Beepers and Pagers and eventually their cellular technology based cousins. Before everyone had cellphones, someone working in a job that had to be on call might carry a beeper. Initially beepers were tied to an operator, and then to a voice-mail system. Someone would call you and leave a message. Your beeper would buzz/beep. You would call your operator or voice-mail system and retrieve your message.

The first major upgrade of these featured a small display on the beeper that would display the phone number of the caller.

Following that, pagers got to the point where the display would show any number that the caller punched in so you could send a message that included other numbers that represented agreed to code number systems which allowed you to get the gist without having to call the voice mail.

The last generation I’ve seen most commonly used supported texting/SMS services like you would have on your cell phone.

Beepers used to be expensive and common in nearly all professions but from personal experience for IT workers in the 90’s having to carry a beeper for their employer was more of a curse than a benefit. It may have been this way in other industries as well for all I know. The curse being that you had no excuse for missing that alert at 2am when the server actually crashed.

One reality scenario here was:

  1. Your employer thought their systems were so important that they needed a 24/7 baby sitter.
  2. But they were too cheep to actually pay staff to sit in a data center around the clock to monitor for problems.
  3. So now you get lovely false alarm beeps waking you at 3am when the random Windows server reboots unexpectedly.

Additionally, for a number of years having a beeper (just like early cell phones) was used as a status symbol for the rich and famous to help make sure they looked important even if they never used it.

Some good extra reading if you’re up to it:


Or, jump back to Part 1 or Part 2

Related posts

June 19, 2009

Lost frames of reference… Part 2: I can’t talk now, I’m expecting a call

Filed under: General,Historical Rant — Tags: , , , , — Bryan @ 2:14 am

When AT&T was forced to break up in the early 80’s one of the side effects was that they had to allow other companies to provide long distance service.

Since AT&T and all of the Bell companies still owned the physical infrastructure (although ownership was now split up by region), part of the deal was that they had to sell access to third parties. New companies such as MetroPhone, Sprint and MCI came into existence to meet that challenge. Eventually Sprint and MCI worked to lay their own copper, fiber and/or satellite infrastructure for handling calls between cities so that they wouldn’t have to carry their calls over AT&T hardware.

Initially to use these services you would call a local or 1-800 number (called an extender). You would punch in a customer account number and then the phone number you wished to call and it would connect you through.

Additionally, many large companies and universities had their electronic switchboards setup so that if you dialed into a specific number and punched in a code, you would be connected to that locations trunk line (aka, business party line) for an outbound call on the companies preferred long distance carrier.

As you might imagine these system were ripe for exploit and if you were clever enough you might have gotten away without paying a single long distance call in the mid to late 80’s.

One really big problem of early automation came about from businesses putting up automated dial-up services. For a period of time in the late 80’s and early 90’s you had to be sure that you had completely logged out a phone system first before you hung-up the line as the system might not detect your disconnect quick enough before another call came in. The net result would be the next caller could carry on with your phone session. Voice mail systems were the biggest problem spot for this issue since they were some of the earliest, fully automated phone utilities in common use.

A few more idiosyncrasies to note specifically about person to person calling was the lack of Caller ID. Until the advent of Caller ID people had no way of knowing who was calling. So, if you were trying to avoid someone you just wouldn’t pick up the phone. Then, you hoped you didn’t miss anything important. Yikes! If you were extra worried about missing that call from your best friend though you would tell them “Ring once, then hang up and call back so I know it’s you.” Or use some other kind of predetermined ring pattern.

Another odd behavior from the years prior to Call Waiting. If you were expecting a call you had better keep the line clear so that the other person didn’t get a busy signal (a corollary to that is if you didn’t want someone to know you were home you would stay off the phone as well). Call waiting was also a bane to modem users as the chime that alerted you that another call was pending would disrupt the modem and force it to hang-up your connection. Some phone companies eventually offered the ability to punch in a code prior to dialing that would disable call waiting for the duration of the call.

Wow, what a pain in the butt now that I think about it.

More next time…

Or, jump back to Part 1

June 13, 2009

Lost frames of reference… Part 1: reach out and touch someone.

Filed under: General,Historical Rant — Tags: , , , , , — Bryan @ 10:55 am

Here in the U.S. we have officially converted to digital broadcast and most stations (with the exception of low-watt operations) have turned off the broadcast of a signal that some have kept running for over 50 years. This got me to thinking about frame of reference and forgotten methods of communications.

Let’s talk about the telephone. To start with originally you didn’t own your own phone. Phones were leased from AT&T or one of the regional Bell operations until around 1982 when AT&T/Bell was forced to break-up as a monopoly.

In the early days of the Telephone you couldn’t actually dial direct, you had to speak with a switchboard operator for assistance. Have you ever seen the old phone that is simply an ear cup, a funnel to talk into, a bell on the top and a rotary crank on the side? Well to use this kind of phone you would pick up the earpiece (receiver) and crank the phone to send an electrical signal down the line to alert the operator that you wished her (men generally weren’t operators originally) attention. She would plug a headset cable into a jack that was bound to your residence to see what you needed. If you wanted to be connected to another local phone user she would disconnect with you, connect her headset to the other local users phone and ring that remote phone by sending an electrical pulse down the line. If the remote user picked up she would let you know that you are being connected and then run a patch cable between the two ports on the switchboard connecting the lines. That connection would remain open until she pulled the wire out (eventually switchboard had little lights on them to indicate active current so the operator could close the line when you were done).

In addition to the local switchboard operator, there were hub operators above them than handled trans-local calls. The same at the National level and even Internationally. Depending on the location and era there would be even more granularity. When you wanted to make a long distance call in the 50’s you hoped that the recipient was there to answer the phone because your local operator just spent an hour working with who-knows how many other operators requesting patch links between who-knows how many switchboards just for you to be connected.

Another lost aspect of early phone network distribution came in the guise of Party Lines (not the kind of “party” you’re thinking, it’s more like “the party to which your dialing is not available”), where you would share a trunk line with a number of other users. This also allowed you to share the cost making phone service more economical for early users. Typically you were sharing with your immediate neighbors. Party lines worked great for outbound calls but not so hot on inbound so you would have assigned ring patterns to listen for to know if the call was for you or someone else which solved the problem well enough. FWIW, you could eavesdrop on others calls if you were sneaky about it. A modern analogy would be an office where there is single shared outbound phone line but individuals call each others desks separate of that line using an on-site electronic switchboard.

Eventually automated switching came about which allowed direct local dialing but for many years long distance (especially International calls) still might have required an operator to patch your call through on a switchboard (physically and the electronically).

In fact it was the early electronic systems that some of the first phone hackers (called phone phreaks) exploited to do their work since everything was controlled by one company (AT&T) the system was a trust based network. If you layered onto that social engineering practices you could get up to no end of mischief.

Another bit of phone fun you could have during the early 70’s was to pickup your phone and dial your own number then quickly hang up. The latency in the early automated switchboards was enough that the automated switchboard wouldn’t issue a disconnect in time to stop the connect command and the system would attempt to connect the call to your now hung-up line (which of course would ring since it was disconnected!). When you picked it up you would have a dead line. Great fun for pranking friends and family.

Did you know that in the very early days of Touch-Tone dialing, AT&T distributed little song books that showed you how to play out popular songs on the key pad. The idea was to encourage adoption, but it was also great fun for calling friends and punching out Beatles tunes.

Can you imagine having to use phones like this? Check back for more soon…

April 30, 2009

To SEO or not to SEO, that is the question.

Filed under: General,Internet Rant,Perspective — Tags: , , , , , — Bryan @ 1:12 am

Most people at some point in their lives will hear the advice “If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is” or maybe “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. This is generally sound advice, and if nothing else it is good counsel to reduce the chance of becoming a victim of a confidence scam.

This leads me to today’s discussion about SEO companies. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization and defines a company as one that will help your business improve how visible your website is in search results on sites like Google, Yahoo, Live Search or any of a dozen Internet search sites online. If you want the best search results for your site, you must optimize it for the search engines.

You don’t know what to do? Who can help?

There are two classifications of SEO companies. The first and best to work with are companies that will audit your website and give you valuable feedback on how to change your HTML page structure. How to present your web content on your site. How to added meta-data to your web pages that helps clue in the search engines as to what can be found on any given page. They will help you understand about all of the extra non-web page files that you can create for your web site that co-operates with the search engines to help them locate your content and best determine how to list it. They may even give you advice on ways to completely rethink exactly what content you should put on your site in order to achieve your online goals. In short an honest SEO company will be there to educate and inform you so that you can make the best decisions on how to engage the online aspect of your business and achieve a sustained level of visibility.

Additionally, they may counsel you on ways to build relationships with other sites to establish cross linking opportunities and how to go about presenting your site to the public in a clean and professional manner that helps you towards getting the traffic you want.

Some of these companies will even help you with this work for an added fee and provide full transparency with their operations, working with you much like a P.R. firm or Ad agency in helping maximize your URL and brand exposure. In fact some of them may work in tandem with your P.R. and/or Ad agency to potentially help take your brand to the next level of visibility. It’s going to be hard work and you better have good, strong content on your site. Why? Because, while you can spend a billion dollars and get a billion people to visit your site, if there isn’t anything there, they are not coming back and they are certainly not going to tell their friends about you (unless it’s to make fun of you).

Now, on the other hand, I suppose if all you want is a billion people coming to your web page and nothing more, then you can always engage with the other kind of SEO company… and unfortunately these guys are the predominant type in the industry.

This second group is the one that tells you “for X amount of dollars I can get you top ranking in Google in 30-days”. All you have to do is just kick back and watch the hit counter on your site climb. This frequently reminds me of the old “lose 30 pounds in 30 days” deal that may work, but by using it you are risking some seriously major health issues and in some rare cases… death.

That got your attention right? You’re sitting there thinking, “OK, now he’s done it, that’s over the top nobody ever died from using an SEO firm.” No… not literally. But many companies have paid a harsh penalty to their brand for some short term traffic gain. Take for instance BMW Germany’s and Ricoh’s brush with Google a couple of years ago.

So just what are these “unscrupulous cads” up to that’s so bad? Well, at their most fundamental level they are assisting your company to behave in a manor contrary to anything you or your peers might have done as a part of normal day to day business. For instance on the more bland but annoying side some of these SEO companies retain ownership of 1,000 or even 100,000 domains that literally contain nothing more than some web pages that point links to their clients in order to try and trick search engines into thinking that your site must be pretty darn popular to have 100,000 other sites linked to it.

At the other end of the spectrum, a tactic currently in use by some of these companies is to pay substandard wages to workers in third world countries to do nothing more than log into every single blog they can find on the Internet and post a comment that contains a link back to your site (be it in the comment directly or the homepage URL provided on the user profile). You’ll almost certainly have seen this on your own blog as a spam comment at some point.

In the BMW example above they were using an old trick of padding out lots of unrelated keywords in the metadata of dozens of web pages on their sites to trick search engines into thinking there was text on the pages that not only didn’t really exist but also redirected you to some other page when you actually got to their site. Effectively, this was gaming the results on words like “used cars” (in BMW’s case) so that BMW always came up on the first page of search results.

There are even companies that do this for other media types as well, such as video. In this case a company might take a video from your site and literally, litter it on every other video portal they can find and upload multiple copies of the video to each of those sites while doing nothing more than changing the length of the video, changing the title or description and having all of these bajillion copies of your video all have a reference link posted someplace that comes back to your web site. This may create the false impression that lots of video sites are linking back to your video site naturally and thus by link volume, artificially inflating the search visibility of your video content. Not only is this behavior discouraged by search engines, it is frequently a Terms of Service violation with sites like YouTube, et all. And, if caught, at best the offending up-loader’s account will get banned (that would likely be one of the dozens of accounts the SEO company has created on their service for doing this). At worst, the video site publicly denounces your use of an SEO firm to spam their portal.

Now that you have some examples of how this works what are the real risks?

Well, the first and foremost risk is for your company’s brand image. In the case referenced much earlier, both companies received a public black eye over their behavior and Google blacklisted BMW’s and Ricoh’s sites from the search index until their sites had been modified to stop their questionable behavior. Alternatively if the SEO companies botch their work badly enough you may be in for ridicule by the public at large or worse your customers. I suppose if you don’t mind the risk of your site getting delisted and having everyone get a laugh at your brands expense (the old “any press is good press” adage right?) then maybe this is just what the doctor ordered.

But don’t kid yourself. At best this second type of SEO operation is deceptive behavior and in the circles I run in, companies that perform this kind of work are considered unethical at best. Period.

Finally, back to the opening title for this post “To SEO or not to SEO, that is the question.” The answer is yes, search engine optimize your site, but mind who’s helping you do the work.

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