The Landscape after Penguin and Panda

You probably have heard that Google made major changes to its search engine algorithms in 2013. If you’re wondering what these changes mean to you, you’re not alone.

Search engines have two basic jobs. The first is evaluating and ranking websites based on the quality of their content and the authority they’ve earned from acquiring inbound links. The second is interpreting the intent of the words and phrases in the search bar and returning the most relevant results, placing the highest quality and most authoritative websites at the top. Last year’s overhaul has improved Google’s performance on both.

google_panda_penguinSo what changed last year? The SEO landscape is definitely different. SEO practices recommended by SEO experts in the past won’t work. We’ve read and listened to many posts, tweets and whiteboard presentations by Google insiders and outside experts with real tools to evaluate the results of the changes, often to an overwhelming degree. Much as you would view an impressionist painting from a distance to see the artist’s rendering of its subject, a little bit of time gives perspective to the new SEO landscape created by the changes. Here’s a summary of that landscape.

Google can more effectively identify sites with high quality original content above the fold and reward them with higher page ranks. It can also apply penalties to sites that paste together content from other sources or fill the top of the page with ads and little content. Code named Panda, this part of the algorithm goes beyond scanning meta data descriptions and on-page keywords. Think of it as “seeing” visible content on the page to determine the User Experience and assigning the subject of the page based on that visible content. No more manipulating results with keyword stuffing or writing eloquent meta descriptions with little or no real content for the User to view. Google is looking for good User Experiences…the same as you or I, as users, would expect.

Google also appears on a mission to lower the authority of sites gaining prominence from mostly purchased or self-published links and keyword-stuffed content. Think of this as the blow to those that “bought their way to the top.” An update to this algorithm originating in early 2012, code named Penguin, was implemented in early 2013. Penguin dealt a real blow to pay-to-list directory sites and aggregator spam blog sites. Is Google acting in its own best interest at eliminating these competitive middlemen? Perhaps, but you can’t complain about their efforts to stop this parasitical practice.

In a tweet about Penguin updates in October, Matt Cutts, head of the webspam team at Google, refers us to a webmaster tools blog post that summarizes the SEO landscape after Penguin and Panda well:

“While we can’t divulge specific signals because we don’t want to give people a way to game our search results and worsen the experience for users, our advice for webmasters is to focus on creating high quality sites that create a good user experience and employ white hat SEO methods instead of engaging in aggressive webspam tactics.”

It’s early 2014 and rest assured Google is working on algorithm updates. So do we sit and wait for the next round? We can’t… that is, if search results matter to the success of your business. It’s imperative to act now. The current landscape is based on solid principles: focus on the user experience and create high-quality, content-rich sites. Taking any action in either or both of these directions will only improve search engine results and more importantly improve results with Customers.

More next time on the second part of a search engine’s job: interpreting the search and returning relevant results.

Chrome’s Creative Take On LEGO

Chrome and LEGO have teamed up to create a unique and fun building tool, guaranteed to bring the kid and hidden architect out of anyone. With its clear 3D graphics and numerous options of brick sizes and colors, you can spend hours building masterpieces without having to ever tear apart and clean up as with the traditional toy.  The platform itself is very seamless and bursting with animation, allowing the user to retain clear views of their creation from whichever angle the bricks are rotated and stacked upon each other.  The possibilities of building are pretty vast and I must say that even without having ever owned a LEGO set, I found myself hooked.  Take a look at this link to start creating for yourself (please don’t blame me for hours of lost time):

http://www.buildwithchrome.com/

The program even features a builder academy to train the LEGO newbies on the tips and techniques to building like a pro.  As you progress through the lessons, you learn the art of the LEGO, including the hidden gems of the program.  You also have the option to explore other people’s creations from around the states with a map that shows you exactly where that person is located.  Meaning, once you create your build, you can share your project with the world.   It was surprising to see so many detailed models out there, each very different from the other.  I must say my starter build failed in comparison to the pros, but nonetheless, I had a great time testing the software.

legoserverI did also learn throughout my research of this program, that Google has had a longtime connection with LEGO.  Their original storage was even housed in a LEGO unit as a cheap cabinet alternative.  This unit can still be found at Standford University today, and now the Chrome can pay homage to the beloved toy with their own online twist.

Use multiple cloud hosting companies for efficient pricing and effective infrastructure.

While the idea of managing data and applications using multiple cloud providers may sound like a nightmare to maintain – are there any benefits? One likely benefit is the removal of single point of failure within your business process. Cloud providers ranging from Amazon to Microsoft have faced outages in the past and it surely was noticed throughout the web (Instagram website was unavailable).

By putting your business processes in multiple locations and infrastructure – you will find yourself in the following situation: “Our website and applications are down but our reporting service and HR systems are still up.” Doesn’t that sound better compared to “It’s all down. We’re waiting on the hosting company to come back with an ETA.” Perhaps your reporting service is hosted in Microsoft’s Azure (SQL Server and SharePoint rigged with SQL Reporting Services) with SalesForce.com handling HR information. Just because your corporate website and product is unavailable doesn’t mean your whole company is at a full stop.

Selecting multiple cloud carriers leaves room for creative price management. Perhaps one provider is better for bandwidth while another is more flexible for storage. If the cost of managing your IT infrastructure is really a concern, selecting multiple cloud hosting company should definitely be considered. And there are solutions out there to help manage the multiple cloud environment, such as RightScale.

Further reading:

2014 Best Cloud Hosting Reviews and Comparisons

Amazon Web Services suffers outage, takes down Vine, Instagram, others with it

Designing Website Asset Caching with Scalatra

Regardless of if you spent countless hours writing pretty CSS and JavaScript or you just need to package Bootstrap and jQuery in your application the last thing you need to worry about is loading all of your assets individually. This can wreck your sites loading times and rendering performance. Scalatra being a light weight framework for building straight forward applications and API’s doesn’t come with a prescribed solution, though WRO4J can step in to assist us with this process. We will step through the configuration of WRO4J, SBT, and finally the inclusion of these into your layouts.

To configure WRO4J we will first add it into our Build.scala or Build.sbt file. We will add a dependency in the following manner:

      libraryDependencies ++= Seq(
        "ro.isdc.wro4j" % "wro4j-core" % "1.4.0",
        ...
      )

We then need to configure our wro.xml file for our Boostrap and jQuery assets:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<groups xmlns="http://www.isdc.ro/wro">
    <group name='core'>
        <css minimize="false">/css/bootstrap.min.css</css>
        <css minimize="false">/css/bootstrap-theme.min.css</css>
        <css minimize="false">/css/bootstrap-glyphicons.css</css>
        <css minimize="true">/css/app.css</css>
        <js minimize="false">/js/jquery.min.js</js>
    </group>
    <group name='bottom'>
        <js minimize="true">/js/bootstrap.min.js</js>
    </group>
</groups>

Followed by our wro.properties file which defines our WRO4J usage:

cacheUpdatePeriod=0
modelUpdatePeriod=0
debug=false
disableCache=false
gzipResources=true
ignoreMissingResources=false
jmxEnabled=true
preProcessors=cssImport,semicolonAppender
postProcessors=cssMinJawr,jsMin

Now we will adjust our layouts to point to the new compiled asset:

        <link href="/assets/core.css" rel="stylesheet" />
        <script src="/assets/core.js"></script>

While this is running you should see a local development speed improvement similar to the table below. This result will be amplified when the application is running remotely in a production environment.

To make this capability suit our needs better in development and to additionally be used for Cache Busting in production we can also add a versioning output to our SBT build process. This will create a file that holds version information and a build number from our Jenkins CI, which we will use to determine the build state and to append to the URL to bust the cache.

To create our version.scala add the following code to your Build.scala file:

lazy val project = Project (
    ...
      // put this in your build.sbt, this will create a Version.scala file that reflects current build state
      sourceGenerators in Compile <+= (sourceManaged in Compile, name, organization, version) map {
        (sourceManaged: File, name: String, vgp: String, buildVersion) =>
          import java.util.Date
          val file = sourceManaged / vgp.replace(".", "/") / "Version.scala"
          val code =
            (
              if (vgp != null && vgp.nonEmpty) "package " + vgp + "n"
              else ""
              ) +
              "object Version {n" +
              "  val namet= "" + name + ""n" +
              "  val versiont= "" + buildVersion + ""n" +
              "  val datetimet= "" + new Date().toString() + ""n" +
              "  val buildNumbert=""+System.getProperty("BUILD_NUMBER", "MANUAL_BUILD")+""n" +
              "}n"
          IO write(file, code)
          Seq(file)
      }
    )
)

We also need to make sure that Scalate will see this class in scope during runtime.

In Build.scala replace:

            Seq.empty,  /* default imports should be added here */

With:

            Seq("import "+Organization+".Version"), /* default imports should be added here */

Now we can update our layout file with a condition that will automatically switch between development and production inclusions of our assets with a Cache Busting scheme.

    #if(com.omnispear.example.assets.Version.buildNumber=="MANUAL_BUILD")
        <!-- Bootstrap core CSS -->
        <link href="/css/bootstrap.min.css" rel="stylesheet" />
        <script src="//ajax.googleapis.com/ajax/libs/jquery/1.10.2/jquery.min.js"></script>
    #else
        <link href="/assets/core.css?v=<%=com.omnispear.example.assets.Version.buildNumber%>" rel="stylesheet" />
        <script src="/assets/core.js?v=<%=com.omnispear.example.assets.Version.buildNumber%>"></script>
    #end

To verify your BUILD_NUMBER handling will work and be passed from Jenkins or your other build system of choice you can run the command example below. Then verify that your assets have switched properly and you are seeing minified and gzipped responses.

./sbt -DBUILD_NUMBER=234 "container:start" "~ ;copy-resources;aux-compile"

An alternative solution would be to use the SBT WRO4J plugin. However, we feel the above method is slightly cleaner and easier to work with for our development process.

The example project for this is available on github. We also would like to thank those whom helped with the initial help with the generation of the Version.scala.

Photoshop Tutorial – Custom Shapes

Custom shapes are vector-based objects which add an endless array of possibilities to your designs. Photoshop by default has a basic set of shapes which includes arrows, star-bursts, speech bubbles and other random objects. These items are handy but on occasion we need something completely unique.

In this tutorial we will explore the creation of our own custom shapes. For this example we are going to take a rather small raster icon and convert it to a vector shape. We start by opening up our image and selecting the pen tool. The pen tool has a few options once selected. Make sure the “paths” option is selected otherwise the shape you create will automatically “fill” with the selected foreground color making the process more difficult.

Pen Tool

Create the initial object outline using the pen. You should make this outline as detailed as possible since the shape you are creating will be a vector object which may be scaled to a very large size showing any inconsistencies. Our first path outline illustrates how a basic shape may be created. Although for this particular item it needs more detail.

outline-basic

Here is an example of the shape that would be created if we had just stopped here:
shape-basic

Take note of how it resembles the original but really lacks the detail which defines the object as a microphone.

outline-advancedWe now revisit the object and outline additional parts of the microphone which will add the detail needed to make our shape resemble the original more closely. You may add as much detail as needed to accomplish your specific needs. For this microphone, we decided to outline all of the “ribs” and parts of the stand including some of the reflections.

The resulting custom shape is considerably more complex which makes a better representation of the original item.

shape-advanced

You may be asking “how did it go from a path to a shape?” That part is actually quite simple. Once you have created your paths make sure the layer containing them is selected. Go to the top menu: Edit -> Define Custom shape…

shape-select

Name your new shape and it will be added to your shape library for use in any project you may need it. Select the custom shape tool from the hidden menu under the rectangle and have some fun with it!

Here is an example of our new microphone shape re-sized and colorized.

microphone-shapes