Monthly Archives: May 2007

Can you find what you’re looking for?

Yesterday Sam and I went to a talk organised by MERIT and presented by Jan Klin titled “Advanced Search Engine Marketing – A Fast Track Approach to the Google Top Spot”. Now, I’d admit that I’ve always considered SEO a bit of a dark art and people specialising in it had something of the Derek Trotter about them, but yesterday’s talk was genuinely interesting. Jan talked through a process of auditing your site, identifying key phrases and targets and only then modifying your pages to be optimised.

While SEO in a university environment might not be quite as important as businesses who are selling products and services (unless you believe students are customers) we do need to ensure that people are able to find what they’re looking for on our sites. We can certainly do more in describing our pages and ensuring that site visitors find pages appropriate to what they’re looking for rather than just landing on the homepage and being left to browse the site themselves.

This is something that we’ll be looking at more in the future and building into new developments from the outset but in the mean time if you’ve had trouble finding something on our website, please do tell us – post a comment below or email the webteam – and it will help us identify areas for improvement.

Google Maps Street View

It’s going to be a while before it comes to Ormskirk, but check out some of the cool work Google have been doing on their new mapping feature, Street View:

Microsoft have had birds eye view over bits of the UK for a while and Google just added 3D views of some major cities plus they must have something planned for SketchUp. They also announced “mapplets” – mashup widgets that can be quickly added to a map.

But I do feel sorry for the guy dressed up in an orange LYCRA® suit!

Technorati Revamped

If you thought that the <marquee> tag was… well… a bit 1995 then you’d be right, but that was the first thing that I noticed on the all new Technorati homepage. If you’ve not come across Technorati before, it’s basically a search engine for blogs. Unlike most search engines such as Google it has very quick indexing – blog posts typically show up within minutes as long as you “ping” them to say there’s something new on your site (this is normally done automatically for you by the blog system). It tracks links between blogs and uses this to determine the “authority” of blogs.

Technorati have been struggling to keep ahead of the sheer might of Google with their Blog Search – now with even higher visibility due to the Universal Search feature they’re rolling out – so they’ve had to adapt and that’s introduced new features and less focus on blogs. Search results and browsing the site now features video, music and photos and more non-blog sites are included in the authority ratings.

Blog search is still there though and it’s been given a dedicated interface at search.technorati.com. Despite the threat from bigger players, Technorati is still a useful service, and while it might not draw huge numbers of people to our sites, it’s very useful for tracking the “buzz” surrounding blogs and community sites.

Online Excellence Scholarships

This year we’re launching our first “Online Excellence Scholarship” in a bid to reward students who are excelling in the construction and creative and interesting use of new media. Successful applicants could be upwarded £1,000 over 1 year (for PGCE students) or £2,000 over 3 years (for undergraduates) an attractive bonus for any student.

So how will we judge “excellence”? Well we’re particularly interested in the richness of content, creativity, innovation and/or technical accomplishment shown in the work and whilst most people have a MySpace page or a blog somewhere or other we’ll be looking for things that stand out from the crowd.

With all the web 2.0 technologies and sites available it’s easy enough for those creative and innovative individuals to really make their mark in the online space and we’re looking forward to seeing some of the best examples and awarding the scholarship to someone we feel can really add value to the growing online community. 

Typography on the Web

I thought it was about time I posted on the Web Services blog. Michael has suggested that I write something about typography on the web so here goes.

First a few comments about typography as part of the Edge Hill University brand. The new logo uses FF DIN Medium in lowercase, an extremely smart and popular contemporary font. Linotype’s ITC Conduit font is used for uppercase headings in brochures and in the prospectus. Both of these fonts are lovely but unfortunately ubiquitous, this could mean that their longevity is limited and that we may end up with a dated logo quicker than we think.

These fonts can only be used as graphics on our website; we cannot use them for HTML text as this is reliant on the user having them installed on their PC, which isn’t likely. So we have a limited selection of common and unloved fonts to use, they are Arial, Georgia, Times, Verdana and Trebuchet.

Luckily with CSS we can imitate some of the typesetting techniques used in print design, for example Tracking is called Letter-Spacing and Leading is called Line-Height, not particularly inspiring names I know. Unfortunately we cannot structure lines of type in tidy pyramids that flow neatly down the page, the line ends when it ends, so the text rarely flows.

Internet Explorer 7 now uses anti-aliased text which means that letters are no longer pixelated and have smooth rounded edges. Unfortunately this means that Verdana, which looks neat and tidy on old browsers, now reveals its true form.

Anti-aliased text is here to stay on the web and luckily Microsoft have a new font package called The Microsoft ClearType Collection which is designed to look good on screen as well as in print.

Cleartype fonts

The new fonts all begin with C, which is helpful for designers like me who have too many fonts installed on their computer. Their names are Calibri, Cambria, Candara, Consolas, Constantia, and Corbel, which sound like models of Vauxhall cars from the eighties. My favourite is Constantia, a very nice serif font that could replace Georgia in the affections of American web designers, Americans love their serifs. Calibri is a nice sans-serif and will probably be favoured in Europe. The weakest is Candara which looks a little like Trebuchet.

Unfortunately these new typefaces are free with Windows Vista so will not be universally installed until that operating system takes off, or is forced on the public. In the meantime you can download the fonts to XP as part of the Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint 2007 File Formats.

Google universal search

Google announced yesterday that they’ll be launching “universal search” where results from video, images, books, maps and so on will be blended into web search results. This has been around for a little while in the form of the “onebox” – a few image results or products shown at the top of the page – but in the future these results will be right in the main listings.

With a significant proportion of our site visitors finding the Edge Hill website using Google (information that’s easy to find with the new Google Analytics interface!), this is potentially a big change in the ordering of results. While I would expect that the top result will still be our home page, we might see video results from YouTube and Google Video starting to sneak in lower down. The Google interface will be tweaked slightly to bring more attention to other types of search result through a bar across the top showing all their services and a bar just above the search results showing search services which are likely to find what you’re looking for. With users much more likely to go looking for these other types of page it raises new SEO challenges to get our heads around.

SOLSTICE Conference 2007

On Friday I attended the SOLSTICE Conference 2007. Some very interesting workshops and talks and I’ll go through a couple now.

E-mpowerment – estrategies in performing arts

Whodathought that performing arts wasn’t just about singing and dancing?! Phil Christopher (Edge Hill University) spoke about some of the work they’ve been doing over there and it was very useful to get an idea of what goes on in the department considering one of our current projects is developing their website.

From Text to Screen: challenging approaches to creating learning in an online environment

Catherine Naamani (University of Glamorgan) shared her experiences of creating elearning materials including some quite frank admissions of problems in obtaining and converting content. One thing that surprised me a little was a mention that the time to convert a particular module was five months. I don’t know the exact numbers of people involved but there was a dedicated team, and I can appreciate that development takes time (the work I did on the Education Partnership website for example took six months), but I wonder whether there are better ways to manage roll out of materials which don’t have such a heavy up front development effort.

While “Just In Time” is often a phrase used when you forgot to do something when you were supposed to, is there something to be gained from developing elearning materials in this way? By delivering materials only shortly before they are to be used and by adapting what you roll out according to progress in the module so far can the resources be more relevant to the students’ needs? I’m sure that this approach is already being used either by accident or design and I don’t have the answer as to whether it’s better, but it does seem to be a more Web 2.0 way of doing things.

Constructing a personal learning environment the free and easy way

Some very interesting demonstrations of how technologies fit together from Derek Harding (University of Teesside). Some of the mind mappings that were done showed very clearly how traditionally university owned resources play only a small part in our online experiences. He then showed how he had built his own “Personal Learning Environment” using iGoogle to bring information and resources into a single place of choice.

iGoogle has many excellent features but it’s not perfect, for purely personal use and certainly not to rely on it in a university environment. But it is still under development. There are other competing products too and Derek mooted the idea of some kind of wish list from the HE sector for what these services should offer. That would be good but it doesn’t address my main concern – over reliance on third party hosted solutions. While I’m not claiming that Google are likely to go under any time soon, should we be relying on them or others to provide essential services? Brian Kelly gave a talk entitled Content Creation: Web 2.0 Is Providing The Solution which addressed some of the issues but it’s for each institution to balance the risks and rewards involved.

My other main concern about pushing PLEs of this sort is that currently we have nothing to bring to the party. While all manner of things are available to plug into iGoogle as widgets, currently content from the University is not available in a form which is easily reusable.

The good news is that there are plans within Web Services to address both these issues. Firstly, many of our services are being redeveloped and part of that is including things like RSS and other ways of syndicating content. The GO portal will also benefit from a significant amount of development between now and September which will make it much more personalised and able to take advantage of the ways staff and students interact with the wider internet, and if the end result is that people take the feeds and move to another portal system then that’s fine too.

What do our users look like? Myths and Facts

Lawrie Phipps from JISC gave the second keynote and discussed a few case study users – what kinds of technologies they use. The answer is that they use a lot more than most staff in Universities. Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, del.icio.us, Google Docs and Spreadsheets, the list goes on. Students also use such solutions as part of their study, often in preference to institutional tools. Why wait for hours for a reply to a forum post when you can send one of your friends an instant message and get the answer straight away? Most VLEs are way behind social communities in terms of ease of use, features, and perhaps most importantly, the preference of students.

Future Learning Environments

Visiting Professor Eric Hamilton from the US Air Force Academy spoke about some interesting work they’re doing over there. The idea of increasing the interactional “bandwidth” of a classroom by allowing students to learn from each other and providing better ways for teachers to constantly monitor the progress of students. They’re testing systems where each student has an agent which can help them out by pointing them to resources or by brokering time with other students who have found the solution or with the teacher. It’s like an extension of copying off the people sat next to you 🙂

While I’m not a baseball fan (ice hockey is pretty cool though!) I can see how their obsession with stats is a useful inspiration for other work that they’re doing at USAFA. Most sports these days have massive amounts of information available to commentators, and often directly to the viewer yet teachers are expected to extrapolate student progress from a simple table of grades, published once every couple of months at best. If some of the innovation that business is able to make can be applied to teaching and learning then it will be a Good Thing.

Engaging with Mobile Technologies for Learning and Assessment

There’s 60 million mobile phones in the UK – virtually every student starting university will have one and it’s long been acknowledged that mobile access to the web is just around the corner. I think we’re finally getting close to that corner! Gareth Frith and another guy who’s not listed on the programme from ALPS CETL demonstrated their progress so far on a project to develop mobile learning and assessment in Health departments and faculties at a number of institutions. They were the first to admit that the way they’ve had to go about the project isn’t ideal – buy the technology first then find ways of using it – but it probably means they’re pushing the technology more than they otherwise would have done.

Concerns had been raised by some over cost and quality of network connectivity but these seem to be excuses – costs will come down and bandwidth improve before these systems are rolled out on a large scale. The more difficult obstacle to overcome is changing the way of working and methods of assessment within institutions – reducing the reliance on paper and complex rules about who has to sign off work and evaluations. Changing this could take years.

Okay, that’s enough I think! Overall the conference was very well organised with very good speakers and I look forward to following developments in the future.

Join our team!

The advertisement for our new post Web Communications Project Manager has just been posted on our website.

We’re essentially looking for someone to Project Manage our communications team within Web Services:

“Leading the creative team responsible for the design and content of the University website and associated online services, you will be an experienced web professional with excellent project management skills.”

The Edge Hill website has moved on a great deal in the past few years but we’re now looking to develop this even more by increasing the functionality and streamlining the information we provide. Anyone with an interest in this position can contact me for an informal discussion. Use the comments facility to leave your details and I’ll get back to you.

What does your “net identity” look like?

I have recently been asked to comment on an article for the Liverpool Daily Post which attempts to look at how employers use the web to locate ‘additional’ information about prospective employees. The article entitled “Should you worry about your net worth?” has already been published online and it makes interesting reading.

According to the article “one in five employers now finds information about candidates from the internet” and “over half of who say it will influence their final decision”. It references sites such as MySpace as easy targets for employers to search for and drill down on the more ‘informal’ information about prospective employees.

Whilst I am not surprised that companies are using the web in this way it does leave me thinking about the advice we should be giving to our staff and students. I do encourage the use of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook and don’t think we can or should be prescriptive about how people should use these but it is worth highlighting this trend from employers and reminding people that should they wish to keep a distinct divide between their personal and private persona – they should ensure this is reflected online.

As Craig Sweeney comments in the article: “The thing to remember is what might make your friends giggle today could come back and haunt you a couple of years down the line when you’re trying to land your dream job.”

Analysis on the doorstep!

I think it’s fair to say that the analysis of web traffic is a somewhat neglected aspect of our service. Whilst we endeavour to use web stats to inform decisions regarding the usability and information for our website I certainly feel we could/should do a lot more with the information. The difficulty has always been with regard to “lack of available resources” and as a consequence search engine optimisation and web statistics analysis is always on our ‘wish’ rather than ‘to do’ lists.

Thanks to Google Analytics though I’m now confident we can do a lot more with less. We’ve been using the Google Analytics tool for several months and it’s providing some really useful data about the behaviour of our users. Whilst we have used a stats package for many years, Google Analytics gives us more comprehensive data in a much more usable format.

As has been the case for many years the majority of our users come directly to our site or by typing “edge hill” (or a variant of) through the Google search engine. In one sense that’s a positive – in terms of marketing and PR – people know about us and look for us so they come to the site for more information. On the other hand though we could certainly improve our web marketing to ensure that more users find their way to the course provision listed on the Edge Hill website without directly looking for us. Whilst we structure content to facilitate this the statistics provided by Google Analytics do help us identify areas for improvement.

Internally we have been discussing some of these issues for a while and work is on-going to utilise the information provided to inform future marketing campaigns (both on and off-line). So an email from Mike this morning stating that a new and even better version of Google Analytics was on it’s way was very welcome!

I’ve had a look at the demo for the new product and I’m very impressed. The new version appears to offer a much greater level of functionality and my favourite bit – automated reports. The ability to customise and automate reports will be extremely useful for us as without a dedicated resource to plough through information it’s always an onerous task. The Google Analytics blog gives details of the new features and expected release . In a resource limited team and in an increasingly competitive environment, I for one will look foward to trying it out.