Three Briefs About Your Web Presence

I had three brief things come to mind, neither of which really need a whole post to describe.   I’ve been thinking what works for a web presence in a Microblog world, and what real competitive advantages & disadvantages websites have over other media.

Are You Ready for Your Blog?

One of the things that is overstated about web-based promotion is ROI — the idea that you put little work into a website and return pretty good results nonetheless.   With blogs, this idea has become even more apparent since with typical WYSIWYG editors, you literally just have to type into a box to make a web post happen.

The institutional side of things, it’s not so easy.  This came up at the last 4th Thursday event, in fact.  When you open a blog for yourself, there is little to no brand associated.   You can pretty much use any template and away you go.  Institutions need to manage brands, reputation, target markets and quality assurance.   If you want your business or institution to be successful, it cannot look like every other blog.   As an individual, people can perceive you poorly and you can still have a successful blog.   Not so with an institution — if your library looks like a jerk, no one will show up to your branches.   Even though web presence has little to do with product/service development, people will associate poor writing on a website with the quality of a product or service.  Libraries cannot afford to have their services downgraded because of poor web content.  In short, you need to add a whole lot of editing, design and marketing time to the denominator of your ROI.

If you are institution, you need content before you establish your web presence.   A blog that has been doing nothing for a month will look bad.   Take a look at what happened to Google when they left their Google Librarian blog to sit for a while.   This does not work the same for individual blogs.   Go away for a month as an individual and people will just think you are on vacation or something.   Those same users will have higher expectations for your library, however.   If you want to start a blog, you need to commit 52 pieces of 800 words or better per year.   Then you need to manage spam, comments etc.   In short, add the costs of content creation and management to the denominator of your ROI equation as well.

In the end, the ROI is still going to look good — just not as good as most people assume.   If you do not put some time and money into the denominator of the ROI equation, the numerator will be zero — or worse, it will do damage to your library/company.

Thinking About Metrics — Total Time Viewing?

Television ads or well-placed bulletin boards are sure to find a good number of eyeballs, but how much time do you really have to get your message across to them?   More importantly, does your website offer a better alternative to these options?

Two popular ways to measure the effectiveness of a website are total visits, and time duration of visits.   Is it possible with typical statistics packages to estimate how much total time users access a website per month?   Yes.   Does it matter?  I am not sure.

For example, my statistics package (AWStats) will tell you the percentages & number of visits in each of the following time-duration categories:

  • 0-30s
  • 30s-2mn
  • 2mn-5mn
  • 5mn-15mn
  • 15mn-30mn
  • 30mn-1h
  • 1h+

A calculation of total time visited per month would be the mean of each category times the total visits that lasted each amount of time.   So, if you had 1000 visits in the 2mn – 5mn category, you might put (210 seconds * 1000 = 210 000 seconds or 3500 minutes or a little less than 60 hours total).   You would do that for every category, except for the 1hour + category.   Although you would definitely lose some numbers, I would remove the 1h+ completely from the list.   These durations almost always mean that someone left their browser running on this page, so the number aren’t really valid.

Then I would have pull two numbers from your stats.   The first is the total number of minutes per month that someone pulled from the sight.   The second is the total number of minutes in 30s-2mn, 2-5mn, & 5-15mn categories.   These are the categories that show the most engagement with a website (anything less could be a mistaken visit; anything more could mean the person was lost).

In the end, you can have an argument for your promotions people that you can expose your users to promotional content longer than other media.   This should shape how your make promotions on your website.

How Do People Come to Your Site?

Another misconception that many people have about a website is that a service merely has to “win the battle of priorities” and find its way to the front page of a website to get traffic.   The reality is something different.   Having a whole bunch of stuff on a front page merely gets people lost on the site.   You may get slightly more traffic to your page, but they might not be happy that they got there.   Further, you may, in turn reduce the traffic of all other pages in the mean time.   You really need to think about how people use your site before you “plop” something on a front page.

Some things people will immediately associate with your library.   These are the things that you should put on your front page.   Other things will be value-added services.   You have a logical pathway to these pages, but they should not take up the prime real estate.   THEN, you find excellent ways to ensure that these pages show up in Google and other search results.   Why?   Because if potential users do not immediately associate the service with your library, they are more likely to use Google instead.   Take advantage of common Search Engine Optimization techniques that can help you in this regard.

You can go further than this.   When I launched our website, one of the first complaints we had was that staff counted on the website to find simple things like the halifax weather, basic mapping, provincial catalogues etc.   My first reaction was “just Google it.”   But then I thought about how staff were using the site.   The website was part of their daily routine — they load up their operating system and then search the main links, most of which were already established on the website.

How are non-staff using the site?   I’d love to know.    Ideally, it would be great if key customers would have a library “visit” scheduled every Thursday morning, for instance.   In fact, I would be surprised if a few people had this exact routine.   Getting good data on this sort of thing could really help your respond to customer need on a website.   I’d like to see more of this kind of research in fact to go along with usability tests and statistics taking.

In the end, I think we still need more people thinking about web presence in all institutions.   The more librarians understand the technical benefits and limitations of the web, the more effective our services will be.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Tips for Libraries

After seredipitously encountering an Search Engine Optimization (SEO) victory (my wife searched for events happening on a major street in my city and our events page turned up #1), I’m feeling pretty good about the library website.   That does not mean that we cannot improve however, so I thought I’d blog about it a bit.

Now, I am not going to cover the basics of SEO, because there are plenty of resources out there that can help with these things.   If you have money, maybe you’ll want to spend some on an SEO consultant who understands the basics.

But even if you hire an SEO consultant, you still need to understand the basics of website architecture from your company’s perspective if you want them — and you — to be successful.  You do not want the people you hire to bring traffic to your website by guessing how your customers do searches.   You need to be ready to identify your user needs online and how best to put the library at the forefront when people have those needs.

So, here are a few tips that I’ve learned about how users search for their libraries:

Sometimes users will search for the system; sometimes they’ll search for the branch

If you look at your website stats, I’ll bet any money that your top searches will be for “library” “[city name] library” “library [city name]” and so on.   The next bunch (I bet) will be “[branch name] library.”

But let’s go even further, if someone is searching for a branch, they may be looking for a specific service or event at this branch.    If this is the case, you want to be sure they don’t have to look for you.

Solution(s):

  • For one, you want to have a page for each of your branches with the branch name in the <title> tag.   Make sure basic location, hours and etc. are on this page.  That will make sure people find your site when they search for a specific branch.
  • If you have a database of programs & events, make sure you have a way to feed upcoming programs to specific branch pages.    If not, make sure you have a link to events from each branch page.
  • Make sure you have locations mentioned (in text or as image names) when you promote specific programs on your front page.

Don’t Let Enthusiastic Branding Get in the Way of Common Sense

As companies, like banks and software companies move from names (Hewlett-Packard) to acronyms (HP), so will many libraries.   This is all great and fine, but you want to be sure that your brand does not get in the way of your SEO strategy.    Take the Acronym for Halifax Public Libraries, for instance:  HPL.   “HPL” can refer to any of the following:

  • Hamilton Public Library
  • Halifax Public Libraries
  • Human Performance Lab (at York University)
  • Human Performance Lab (at Calgary University)
  • Human Placental Lactogen
  • Huntsville Public Library
  • High Performance Linpack
  • Hewlett-Packard Labs

If you are ‘the’ HPL (in my case, Hamilton Public Library) then all is fine and dandy.   However, if you are HPL number 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8 — then there is some trouble.      Also, are you sure that it is an acronym that people will type into Google or another search engine when they are searching for you?

Solution:

  • Make sure all images and acronyms have a plain-english explanation for who you are as well.  For one, the title should include the full title of your organization.
  • As a general rule, favor plain language over jargon on your website.   “FindIt” might be great for print promotion on your catalogue, but “search” is what most people look for online.
  • For your URL, consider including the word “library” somewhere.   This is especially true if your library’s acronym could be confused with those belonging to other organizations.  Remember that the word “library” is the best brand that we have.

Consider Your Users’ Needs, and then Make Pages that Respond to Those Needs.

It shocks me how many libraries have websites that do not include the words “reading” “books” “computers” or “wireless” somewhere on their pages.    We want people to think about the library when they are searching for books, along with all those publishers, used book stores and etc.

When someone is looking for wireless connections in your town, does a search for “wireless [your town]” have your organization up and front?    Why not?

Solution:

  • Build your website according to user needs, using simple language.   You want the keywords that people will use to appear on your website.
  • Assuming that you have the following services, you should include the following terms somewhere on your site:
    • Wireless (wifi)
    • Computers (and computer lessons)
    • Events & programs
    • Books, Bookclubs, DVDs, Authors
    • Reading, Read, Readers
    • Kids, Parents, Teens, Seniors

Don’t Buy into the “Front Page is Everything” Philosophy

Whenever you start a website project, the first thing almost everyone is going to tell you is that their particular interest/service/whatever needs “a big button saying “[insert service here]” on the home page”.    While it’s true that being on the front page will draw more traffic to that page, it does not follow that you will have more visitors to your site.   It is much, much better to have a logical pathway to each service, with clear labels and a simple interface.

From an SEO standpoint, this also matters.    If someone is looking for something specific (eg. How to sign up for an Literacy program), they are going to want to hit the “sign up for Literacy” page on your website when they search, not the home page.

Solution:

  • People will click a few times to get where they want to go.    While you do not want people to get lost, you also do not want to schmush your front page with content simply to give exposure to pet projects.
  • Consider other marketing techniques to draw attention to smaller projects.  For example, you could try viral marketing instead.
  • Spend more time developing useful content that will get people clicking on your website after a search, rather than worrying about from-the-front-page navigation.
  • Make sure that you have search engine-friendly Urls turned on if you are using a content management system like WordPress, Joomla, or Drupal.

These are a few tips I have.   There are many more, of course — maybe you want to share some?    In the end, libraries spend much too much time worrying about the design of their webpage without considering other pathways that customers will take — including search and external links (which I have not covered here).

Dawn of the Dewey: What About A New Standard?

Tim Spalding of Library Thing has initiated an idea for an open source, crowd created replacement for the Dewey Decimal System called OSC.   On the whole, I am for starting anything.   I think entrepreneurialism like this is a good thing.   Competition of any kind cannot hurt the process of information organization — it makes everyone stronger, smarter and more productive.  There’s more discussion about it by Tim from this Wednesday’s Uncontrolled Vocabulary.

I do get a little up in arms when I hear pretentious snark about someone’s idea.    More of it was thought to appear on librarian.net, although it seems it may not have been snark after all?

Having skimmed over the forum, one of the concerns I have at the outset is that the ideas appear to be mimicing, rather than replacing the DDC.     I would like to see people using their minds more about this issue.   Mimicing is a definite no-no from an aesthetic point of view, and it makes me question what the point of such a replacement in the first place?   I say if you are going to do something new, make it new.   Make it noticeably 2008, rather than an updated 18-hundred-whatever.

The other issue I have is that thinking about book order in the abstract is quite different from action thinking.   Considering that this replacement will be largely about placing books on a relative shelf order, I think we should be developing that standard while actually shelving books.   So, here is my idea:

  • Go to your local public library’s catalogue and using any random selection process of your choice, place a hold on 20 or more books.
  • Put those books in a shelf order, that makes sense to you.
  • Try an alternative shelf-order.
  • One more alternative shelf-order.
  • Post those titles and shelf orders to the Library Thing forum on this issue
  • Explain how you came to these shelf orders, which one you liked the best and why.

Or you can do something else similar.   The broad point i want to make is that, if this thing is going to replace DDS, then it ought to be based on some sort of new foundations, hopefully considering not only what the user thinks, but how the user will eventually use the system.  The only way to get at how people use something is through action.

All in all, I love this idea and kudos to Tim Spalding for proposing it.    And by the way, he is looking for a leader for this project — someone who will facilitate the process without dominating it.   You got the guts?  Go for it!

Initial Thoughts on the ASUS EEE PC for Public Use

As a big advocate of laptops in public libraries as a way to engage community, it was a no-brainer that I would experiment with some of the latest sub-notebook class of computers, such as the Everex Cloudbook or ASUS EEE PC.   The obvious advantages would include:

  • Reduced costs:   you can pretty much buy anywhere from 3-5 subnotebooks for the price of a regular laptop.
  • Open-source alternative OS:  the “lean and mean” sub-notebook hardware begs for a linux-based operating system, creating a good opportunity to introduce your customers to non-windows alternatives at the public terminals.
  • portability:   unlike regular-sized laptops, taking a lab of 5-10 subnotebooks on the road could be done with a simple backpack (and a back to go with it).   There is a great opportunity for community technology outreach with these machines.

Step one was to convince the powers that be that I need one of these things to play with.   At a mere $399 for the ASUS EEE PC (the one I’m going to speak about today), this was an easy ask.    When it came in, there was enthusiasm all around about this machine from all levels of staff.   It looks good; it can fit in a purse; it’s sexy; it surprises the heck out of people when you say it’s dirt cheap.

The Xandros install that comes with the EEE is intuitive to most I’ve shown it to.    My initial thoughts are that Xandros is fine for most public use.

That said, having asked a few staff about its potential, there are a good number of cons that need to be considered as well:

  • the keyboard, monitor and mouse pad are way too small for anyone with hands larger than a 12 year-olds.   Libraries would almost definitely require a separate mouse and keyboard for these machines.   People with vision issues would need a separate display as well.
  • Xandros is pretty limited for all but the most basic productive uses.   One of the reasons I would want to introduce linux to the public is to have interesting and/or unique software (like noteedit, Emacs, the kde line of software, sqlite etc.) available for use, not to mention Ubuntu’s for-free Assistive Technology options.
  • Installing and configuring another system (like Ubuntu) does require someone with some linux experience (although Justin Gill has done a great job with instructions for configuring wireless in Ubuntu 8 (Hardy Heron).    I’ve also had to reconfigure the wireless after a standard update using the synaptics package manager as well.    This could be quite a pain in the long run, unless you have techie front-line staff.
  • Although not confirmed, the size of the EEE PC does make it a likely victim of a theft.
  • It gets really hot.   It’s not a laptop really, because it’s intended for a table or desk, not your lap.   And using this on a couch, bed, carpet or anything that would block a square centimeter of the ventilation areas would really kill the lifetime of this laptop.
  • No really cool games are available despite the linux distribution you use.    Even if you install XP, it is not likely you will be able to get any large-scale software on it afterwards.    No Second Life.   No World of Warcraft.

So far, we’ve experimented with the EEE PC as a support for ESL classes.   The bottom line is that the computer is too small to be used for most learners in this group.   However, I do think there are some realistic uses for it:

  • It could be a lost-cost alternative for presentations in branches.
  • The keyboard is the right size for smaller children — so a program with educational games seems appropriate.
  • A number of them could be useful as a lab for state/provincial libraries to offer professional development to rural libraries.
  • A combination of a laptop, keyboard, mouse and screen projector could be really good for a one-to-one IT clinic for older adults (and it would still be cheaper than buying a laptop).
  • It could be useful as a lender program, provided that customers will understand that this is a linux-based, teeny-tiny laptop.
  • There is an opportunity here as a support piece for programs as well.   For instance, people who attend our ESL programs often bring their children.    It could be good to hand children a EEE PC while they are waiting for their mom or dad to finish their ESL sessions.
  • Add a wifi package to a EEE and you could provide bibliographic instruction to people who use homebound or books by mail services.
  • The EEE could be good to expand roving reference services, balancing the portability of a hand-held with the usability of a desk/laptop.

In the end, I do not think the subnotebook is going to solve all our problem regarding providing flexible and effective access to information and technology inside and outside the library.   The future is promising, but I need to see a little bit more before I am going to go bandwagon on this model of service.