Clouds, Trust and Security

Recently we’ve had two major issues with online networks. One was the large number of services that depend on Amazon’s cloud facilities, which went down for a number of days. The second was the Sony PSP gaming network which was badly hacked and was down for even longer, and more importantly seems to have leaked users personal data and possibly credit card details – although the truth of this still somewhat uncertain.

These aren’t the only ones, just the most high profile. There’s been problems in the last year with Hotmail, Gmail and Google Analytics amongst others.

Personally I’m not a fan of cloud computing – I simply don’t trust commercial systems driven by costs to be reliable enough or secure enough, but I had felt that I was a loan voice in the wilderness and having started this post a few days ago I was wondering whether to bother finishing it when I received the latest edition of Windows Secrets newsletter (highly recommended) and read an article by Woody Leonhard. Woody has long been a favourite author of mine, from the days when I ran the computer books dept at James Thin and seized on his early books on things like Word 6 macro programming. He has a robust and common sense approach that I find echoes my own and is above all practical. So it was a relief to find that he shares my doubts about the cloud.

It seems to me that the idea is being largely driven by accountants and supported by uninformed users who have become beguiled by file sharing services, online image galleries and webmail to believe that they don’t need to bother with security and file organisation. Of course most of them haven’t even heard of the file organisation tools on their systems and couldn’t tell you where their files are most of the time – Microsoft’s determined hiding of Windows Explorer and its increasingly awkward design in Vista and Windows 7 have contributed to the problem.  I’ve always found when training work colleague and friends that the best way to improve their understanding of and comfort with computers is to teach them basic file management and to display ALL file extensions.

Accountants with no concept of the technical issues surrounding network management and system security read advertising claims about cloud systems and only see vast savings in expert manpower and expensive hardware with no conception of the implications should anything go wrong. Only when the accident happens and there is an outage or data loss does the penny drop.

Any business that relies on other peoples’ networks cannot function when those networks are not available – with the resultant loss of sales, cash flow and customer loyalty.

Any business that leaves its data in the hands of someone else risks total disaster if that data is lost.

Call me an old fashioned Luddite but to me the only way that makes sense is to have your data on your machines, your emails on your servers and your local machines, and to have solid backup strategies in place. Likewise security – do you really believe that another company cares about your security and data privacy as much as you do? How about the taxman? If your accounts are in the cloud and they go poof! what do you think the Revenue will say about your responsibility to maintain your records? If your webmail system serves you targeted adverts in order to provide the “free” service do you really believe that your mail stays private?

So for me I’ll continue to use pop mail boxes with only occasional use of webmail *on my own servers*, rather than 3rd party mail systems whether Gmail or Hotmail or anything else. I’ll continue to hold my own files on my own machines and if I need to synch them I’ll do it when they are facing each other across my own network rather than across the cloud. And while services like Dropbox have some useful capabilities I’ll be very careful about what data ever crosses their threshold. My data – my responsibility. My clients’ data – my responsibility.

And when the next major outage or security fail happens Woody and I will still have our data intact.

Should you follow the SEO rockstars?

In the old days if you wanted to learn a subject you read a book on it. That doesn’t work with SEO because it’s a very fast-moving subject and by the time anyone writes a book about it and goes through the publication process the information is inevitably at least partly out of date. So the way that many people learn, whether they are beginner pros or aspiring do-it-yourselfers, is to read blogs and articles. The problem is that there is a lot of disagreement out there about what works and what doesn’t. So who should you read and what should you believe?

I’m NOT going to give you a list of the best blogs to read, not because I don’t agree with their advice per se but because I don’t believe that the same advice is applicable for everyone. Just as in the wider world of marketing what works for companies like Tesco or Barclays Bank isn’t necessarily what will work for a small telecommunications company or a  medium-sized specialist retailer, so the appropriate SEO techniques will be different.

There are many ways of doing SEO but it could be said that they mostly fall into two main categories – those who believe links are far and away the most important factor in ranking and those who take a more general view and think that site architecture and content are at least as important. If you read a lot of blogs and articles you might get the impression that most Americans fall into the former category and a higher proportion of British SEOs are in the latter.

That may or may not be true, however I believe that it’s more a case of which market sectors you work in that influence which strategies you are more likely to favour, and which are likely to work best. It’s often forgotten that many of the prominent “stars” tend to work for large clients whose sites often have very large numbers of pages, are often difficult to reprogram, and who have very complicated overall marketing strategies. In contrast to that many of the people who read their blogs are working with small to medium enterprise (SME) businesses whose sites are much more varied, often built to pretty low budgets and often on open-source platforms and who are working in niche areas. Is it really likely that exactly the same techniques and principles will apply?

There are a vast number of ways of building websites and when you take account of size  and the resultant complexity of architecture then these ways multiply the complexity of how those sites perform. A link going to a site may strengthen one page or percolate down to many others. Anchor text pointing at a site with few keyword targets may have very different effects from one that has many. Social connections may be essential in one market and almost impossible in another. Site programming may be absolutely critical in a site that has high traffic and a lot of data to pull from a database, but far less important in a smaller site or one with lower traffic levels that is never stressed near to its limits. Conversion rates, bounce rates, site speed – all may have very different levels of importance in different sites and different markets.

What this means is that you have to analyse a site as a whole – the business, the competition, the purpose of the site, the coding of the site, the architecture of the site, and a hundred other things before you can get an idea of what will be the most important factors in any particular case. You can’t say in advance that “it’s all about links”, or it’s all about social”, or “it’s all about architecture” You need to have a thorough understanding of how all these different factors work in different environments and marketplaces. So if you simply follow the advice of an SEO star who works in a different market to yours then you could be making a big mistake. What works for him may not work for you. I’m not saying that Rand or Aaron or Bruce et al are wrong – I’m saying that some of their advice may be suitable for a different market sector than yours.

Whether you’re in the SEO business yourself or are a businessman trying to make sense of it, you need to keep an open mind and read widely – but most importantly you have to think for yourself, and work out what’s relevant to you rather than blindly following the “SEO rockstars”.

IE9 – are we looking at the new IE6?

This one’s webdev related rather than SEO, but then I’ve always been a web developer as well and I’ve always believed you can’t be a good SEO without being a good developer, and vice-versa.

IE6 used to cost me a LOT of time chasing bugs. I’ve always said the only correct way to code a site is to build to web standards first and then test in a range of browsers and build the fixes for those that don’t work properly. For many years after CSS became the preferred method of design that generally meant that everything worked pretty much as expected in Firefox, Safari, and Opera, and then you tore your hair out finding and fixing the bugs in IE6. These were usually traceable to the hopelessly non-standard “haslayout” property which could destroy a design if you weren’t aware of its effects – whole sites like Explorer Exposed were devoted to the arcane and mysterious machinations of this web design nightmare. (Thanks guys, you saved us all many times over!)

When IE7 came along we were promised life would be much better – except it had loads of bugs too, just different ones, and since IE6 didn’t go away we had to deal with two lots of problems. IE8 was better, but everyone hated Vista so few upgraded and we had to deal with 3 lots of bugs. Thank heavens with the advent of Windows 7 that IE6 usage has declined to such an extent that it’s now viable to either ignore it or at least tell the client that the design will be different but acceptable for its remaining users and that there’s no real alternative if they want the latest features and looks at a reasonable price.

With CSS3 and HTML5 causing great excitement among developers we’ve all been hoping and praying that Microsoft’s promises of standards compliance and CSS compatibility would come true and we could all finally move forward in reasonable confidence without screeds of IE conditional statements. I had largely ignored the beta versions of IE9 although a programmer friend had tried it and removed it because some many of his regularly visited sites broke in it.

Now it’s finally been released and what do we find? Well without going into too much research it’s not looking so good. Two relatively simple CSS3 properties that designers have been banking on (and which are well supported elsewhere) are text-shadow and background gradients. Neither is supported in IE9. Come on guys, if you can’t handle those what right have you to call it a modern browser?

What abut HTML5? There’s been a lot of discussion (ok, flaming) on numerous forums since Microsoft touted the results of a series of W3C tests that showed IE9 coming out ahead of all its rivals. Sadly those tests were but a small subset of the full HTML5 feature set and biased towards things that IE9 handled pretty well. Lots of other features are apparently much less well supported if at all. Earlier today I looked at a site about HTML5 forms, and was astounded at what was reported there – almost complete lack of support for any of the new form features.

Ok, I accept that HTML5 and CSS3 are not finalised specs, but actually they may never be because of the way standards are now developing – the web world is moving too fast for standards to ever be set in stone. To use that as an excuse not to support features which designers and developers have been crying out for for years is a poor response.

Now when I finally get some time to do some properly detailed research I’ll present a much more in-depth comparison here, but so far I have to say that I’m less than impressed, and it seems to me that once again we are going to be stuck with a major browser, that will inevitably be used by a substantial number of people, that holds back progress, provides a poorer user experience, and costs developers and their clients vast amounts of time and money to support and work around. Remind you of anything?

If the best they can say about IE9 is that it’s better than IE8/7/6 then I’m afraid that isn’t enough. Firefox, Chrome, and Safari are going to kick its butt!

RIP AlltheWeb

I was sad to see that Yahoo have announced that AlltheWeb will cease to exist from April 4th and queries will be redirected to Yahoo.

Of course it was inevitable given the fact that Yahoo itself is now powered by Bing (not quite yet in the UK but it’s not far away), and hardly anyone used AlltheWeb any more, but for those of us who’ve been around long enough to remember the old days it was a very nice search engine which I often found to produce better results than Google, Yahoo and MSN, and was very quick, had a simple interface and was generally a very pleasant system to use.

Personally I had hoped that Yahoo would adopt it completely and replace their own system but it seems the purchase was more about getting rid of a competitor and stopping the technology from being bought by anyone else. At a time when Google has a near monopoly and lots of people are hoping the Blekko provides some sort of challenge it’s tempting to recall days when there was more diversity and some real competition. If we had three or four genuinely popular search engines now who all used different algorithms then we’ve have a lot less link manipulation and the sort of dreadful content farms that Google is having to try to combat now.

 

Back in the saddle

Hell, it’s been a  long time since I’ve done any blogging. Major life events – bereavements in family and friends, divorce, house purchase, and a load of other stuff – have rather got in the way and my clients’ sites have had priority.

Now safely settled in a new house and office and with Spring finally showing its face it’s time get this site back on the rails and start commenting again on our ever-changing industry. Anyone still out there?

The Problems of Privacy on Social Networking

As those who know me will testify I am no longer young, and while I think as “young” as I can, inevitably my attitudes reflect those of my generation to some extent. One aspect of the younger generations that I struggle with is their blasé attitude to privacy. We who were brought up on stories of the horrors of state surveillance in the Soviet block value our privacy, but the interconnected internet world has produced a generation  who think nothing of sharing their most intimate secrets online, often to “friends”. Even the occasional stories of people being fired for making comments about their work doesn’t seem to deter them.

Now being an SEO means I have to advise clients about their online exposure and inevitably the global success of Facebook means that they come up in such conversations. However I myself have been extremely wary of Facebook due to the various cavalier changes they’ve made to their user’s privacy settings and I am deeply suspicious of any system that can be used to join up databases of people’s activities and opinions and expose them to other agencies – whether those agencies are governmental or advertising,  insurance companies or marketing.

I do use Twitter but I’m careful how I use it. I don’t have a personal Facebook account and although I did once toy with a company account I never completed it as it required a personal one to go with it and I can’t even access it now to delete it.

Today I noticed two posts:

Facebook Removes User Profile Rights and Choices by Kim Krause Berg

and

F*ck Facebook and the Facebook Personalization program by Alan Bleiweiss (reader of a delicate disposition be warned)

which details two new sets of changes to how Facebook operate. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions but for me it confirms all my worst fears, and confirms that I will never have a Facebook account.