Twitter promoting Search despite major issues

Yesterday Twitter launched a new home page that puts more emphasis on search and trending topics. There’s a nice big search box on top, with up-to-date, daily, and weekly trends underneath. The aesthetic is different from the rest of the site however (you don’t see any of this if you’re logged in), so don’t be surprised to see additional changes in the coming weeks.

If you enter a query or click on a trending topic, the search results appear below. It looks a lot like Twitter Search. Some of the improvements include a description of what the trending topics are (Hell’s Kitchen was given the description “A reality television cooking competition”) and search tips appear in a little box on the right.

I don’t think the new design should be a surprise to anyone – it has been clear for quite some time that Twitter Search is important.

What’s surprising is that they’re promoting search even though it has major issues:

  • Stale Results: Twitter itself has become very stable lately, but the same cannot be said for Twitter Search. Results routinely become stale, sometimes for as long as an hour or two (so the newest tweets to show up in the results were posted an hour or two ago). For a real-time search engine, the stale results issue happens surprisingly frequently.
  • Missing Tweets: Over the last few weeks I’ve noticed that the number of missing tweets has increased (though I think it has always been an intermittent problem). It used to be that I could enter my username and see all replies at Twitter Search, but lately I can’t. Some tweets simply don’t appear in the Twitter Search index. I’ve submitted a support request about this, but have not heard anything back yet.
  • Other Intermittent Issues: There are a few good reasons that someone might not appear in search results (such as if they have a private account) but lately Twitter has had issues keeping the index up-to-date with new accounts.
  • Lack of Innovation: With the exception of adding the “source” property to search results, Twitter has done very little to improve the service they purchased a little over a year ago. Real-time search is new and ripe for innovation, but Twitter doesn’t seem interested. One of the oldest quirks is that user IDs returned from Twitter Search don’t match up with user IDs at Twitter itself. This is scheduled to be fixed in the next version of the API, but it’s not clear when that will happen.

Worst of all, Twitter has been terrible at communicating about the above issues. The Twitter Status blog is never updated when search results go stale, and very little has been shared regarding the future direction of Twitter Search.

The good news is that Twitter is finally starting to acknowledge that they need to improve search. Last night, Biz wrote: “We have a lot of work to do when it comes to the quality of our search results and trend analysis…”

Search is vitally important to Twitter, and I want to see them succeed. If they don’t address the above issues however, someone else is going to come along and steal their thunder.

Idea: Proud Edmonton Tech Company badge

Edmonton SkylineThings have definitely improved in the last couple of years, but Edmonton still has a reputation as something of a dead zone for innovation. Or perhaps more accurately, we don’t really have a reputation – we’re not on the radar in most cases. It’s not true of course, there are plenty of interesting and innovative projects, companies, and people in Edmonton. The challenge is making others aware of them.

There are a variety of ways to do that. One is through the media, both traditional and new. Such mentions tend to be fleeting, however. Another way is through events such as DemoCamp, though those typically benefit only the locals. These are important, and we should keep doing them, but we need something else as well.

As I thought more about the problem, it occurred to me that we could learn something from other industries. There are two organizations in particular that do a good job of boosting local companies – Original Fare and Keep Edmonton Original. You can find their logos at independent restaurants and retailers around the city, and I think seeing them reinforces the notion that we have more than just big box stores and chains. What if we had something similar for technology companies?

For tech companies, the web is important. It’s often the first point of interaction. As such, it’s always been a pet peeve of mine that so many local tech companies seem afraid to mention on their website that they are based in Edmonton:

I’m not trying to suggest that any of these companies have intentionally left Edmonton out, but I do think there is room for improvement.

So here’s the idea: what if every local tech company put a badge on their website that says “Proud Edmonton Tech Company”? What kind of an impact would that have? I think it would definitely help with awareness.

For most companies, placing the badge on the front page probably doesn’t make sense. Nexopia, for instance, has a very large external audience that probably doesn’t care that the company is located in Edmonton. Others will simply want the front page to look a certain way. Nearly every company has an about page however, and it’s on that page that I think such a badge would be featured (and maybe on the contact page too). Where would the badge link to? I’m not sure. I’m not even sure it has to link anywhere.

What do you think?

Edmonton Stories – The First Month

Back on May 14th the City of Edmonton launched its Edmonton Stories website which aims to gather real stories from real Edmontonians for use in marketing. The City did a good job of getting the site started with around 60 pre-sourced stories, giving it some momentum out of the gate. I wrote at the time that while I thought the idea was good, it wasn’t without challenges. I mentioned three: quantity of content, regularity of content, and quality of content.

Were they able to feed off that momentum to overcome those challenges throughout the first month? Let’s find out.

It took about a week after launch for the first story to appear – Sheila Edmonds’ story about adventures in Edmonton was posted on May 22nd. Stories have appeared somewhat regularly since then.

Here are the stats for the period May 14th through June 14th (word counts use the Microsoft Word algorithm):

Total # of stories posted: 42 (6 by staff)
Total # of words: 16328
Average # of words per story:  389
Total # of stories with video: 4
Total # of stories with photos: 12

The longest story was Marie Drake’s My First Time on the Mindbender at 1034 words, while the shortest was Lucien Levesque’s Festival for Kids in St. Albert at 59 words (plus a video).

Here a couple Twitter-related stats, since I have them:

# of tweets mentioning #yegstories: 106
# of tweets mentioning edmontonstories: 163

Here’s a Wordle of the first month’s stories:

As expected, words like “city” and “people” are quite common. After all, it’s the people that make Edmonton great, right? I’m happy to see “bus” is larger than “car” 🙂

Edmonton Stories has been quite active online in the first month or so. They’ve amassed 247 followers on Twitter (posting more than 200 tweets), and 72 fans on Facebook. More interesting than that, at least in my opinion, is that they’ve been commenting on blogs. Here’s one example on Sharon’s blog. I think that’s smart, as long as they are making comments that add value (otherwise the strategy could backfire).

So, the verdict:

  • Quantity: I think 42 stories posted in the first month is fantastic!
  • Regularity: Not bad, but there’s definitely room for improvement here. At least one story per day would be ideal.
  • Quality: This is subjective, but I’d say the quality is pretty good. The average length of stories is about right. Most user submitted stories have been in the Living category however, which means the Working category seems a little less genuine. I’d also prefer that each story had a one or two line bio about the author.

Overall I’d say Edmonton Stories had a good first month – kudos! I hope they can keep it up in the months ahead.

I’ll (finally) be submitting my story this week!

Edmonton Stories

The City of Edmonton just launched a new campaign called Edmonton Stories. The goal of the campaign is to offer citizens an opportunity to share their stories about Edmonton with one another, and with people around the world. These stories will then be used in targeted marketing to attract labour and visitors to the city. There are two aspects to the campaign – the Edmonton 2030 video/vision that was unveiled at last week’s State of the City address, and the EdmontonStories.ca website.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to an Edmonton Stories preview earlier this week with a dozen or so other community members. Project lead Mary Pat Barry took us through some background information and a walk-through of the website. She explained that the City has done a lot of research into how Edmonton is perceived both internally and externally, and they found a big discrepancy. It turns out (according to their survey data at least) that Edmontonians view their city far differently than people who live elsewhere do. In fact, it’s almost the exact opposite. And across almost all measures, Edmontonians view their city positively. Hence the push to get Edmontonians to share their stories.

Here’s how it works. They’ve seeded the website with roughly 60 stories covering a variety of topics. Anyone can go on the site and submit a story of their own. All entries are moderated, but the goal is a turnaround time of less than 72 hours for each one to be posted. In addition to text, you can attach images or video. Currently the site is focused on the city itself, but the entire capital region is a goal and input is not currently limited to any geographic area (in fact, “Calgary” was the default in the demo…minor glitch I’m sure). I haven’t been able to try it it yet, but posting a story looked simple enough in the demo.

Roughly $1 million was approved last year for the 2009 campaign. Most of that money is being spent on the website and the team of people who will manage and curate it. The website was built by Parcom Marketing Inc. and Yellow Pencil, and will be managed by the City of Edmonton and Parcom. I think it’s very attractive and well designed, but it’s not without flaws. For instance, there is now an RSS feed, but you really have to look for it. Also, there should be one for each category. I’m sure everything will be sorted out shortly, however.

I think the City is on the right track with Edmonton Stories. Despite being yet another place to create content, I can see how it serves a specific purpose. There are probably a significant number of people who have a story or two about the city to share, but not enough to warrant creating a blog. Edmonton Stories gives them a place to share a few things.

That said, I think Edmonton Stories faces some challenges:

  • Getting people to post stories is the key challenge. Will enough Edmontonians head over to the site to share something?
  • Ensuring stories are shared over time is another issue. To continue to have an impact, the site can’t go stale.
  • Maintaining a certain quality will be a challenge. What if many of the submissions are just a few sentences long? On the flip side, what if a story is clearly a marketing piece for a business or other organization? The moderators have their work cut out for them!

Not insurmountable, but challenges nonetheless.

Edmonton Stories is a more creative approach to the problem of how to market our city than the typical branding/marketing campaign, so kudos to the City for the concept. Now we’ll see how successful it is, and if it resonates with Edmontonians or not.

Take a look at the site and read the about page. What do you think? Also, you can follow @edmontonstories on Twitter.

UPDATE: There are more details on the campaign at the City of Edmonton website.

Happy 5th Birthday Facebook!

Today is Facebook’s 5th birthday. Hard to believe it has been around that long, actually. Over 150 million people have joined since launch, and Facebook is now a household name. I remain a regular user of the site, though I’m not nearly as active there as I once was. I guess you could say the buzz eventually subsided for me.

I am continually amazed at how many people have Facebook accounts. Almost my entire family does – even my Grandma, who just joined last week! And it’s more than just having an account. My parents are very active on the site, far more active than I am. This is important.

Why? Because of Facebook Connect. I’ve been playing with it recently, and I’m impressed with how easy it is to integrate into a website. Essentially Facebook Connect is a single-sign-on service. Instead of creating a new account at a website, you can just login with your Facebook credentials. Additionally, the site can publish stories to your feed if you allow it. It’s pretty slick.

Facebook Connect needs lots of active users to be successful. It also needs participating websites. Though there aren’t very many yet, I expect adoption to pick up. It’s easier to decide on Facebook Connect than on something like OpenID because you don’t have to explain what it is, and chances are your users already have a Facebook account anyway.

It’ll be interesting to see how Facebook changes over the next five years. I’d bet that Facebook Connect will play a big part in any changes.

For more on Facebook’s 5th birthday and some up-to-date statistics, check out Hitwise and VentureBeat.

Critiquing Edmonton’s Winter Light website

winter light 2009 Two weeks ago, I wondered where the website was for Edmonton’s new winter festival. A few days after that post, the official website was launched. Now that I’ve had a chance to look at it, I thought I’d post a bit of a critique. But first, here’s some new information that was released at the same time:

Opening Ceremonies and the Winter Light Gala will launch the event January 8 at 10:00 AM in City Hall and Churchill Square. The Opening Ceremonies will preview highlights of Winter Light 2009 programming with outdoor performances, a "Blessing Fire", and a media launch with special guests, dignitaries and hot chocolate.

"I think winter has been one of Edmonton’s best kept secrets for too long," says event director Pamela Anthony. "Our goal is to showcase all the wonderful aspects of our winter city – the incredible recreation opportunities, the gorgeous river valley environment, and the culture and heritage of winter peoples."

I wanted to point out that quote, because it contains a lot of imagery that I’d love to see showcased on the website. Unfortunately, it’s not there at the moment. The first thing you see at the website is an annoying ten second flash intro. Totally useless, totally a waste of my time. Once you’re past that however, things start to improve.

The main page features a nice winter scene, with the city skyline, people participating in winter activities, and the catchphrase written in the style of northern lights – let it glow, let it glow, let it glow. The site is broken up into five main sections – Winter Light (about the festival), events, calendar, resources, and contacts.

Winter Light 2009 Website

Here are the things I really like about the site:

  • The integrated Google Map (available on event pages and the resources page) is great. Very quick way to see where everything is happening.
  • Using Google Calendar in place of yet another custom calendar was very smart. Well done. Makes it easy to add things to your own calendar too.
  • Consistent layout and colors.

And here are some things I’d like to see improved:

  • The RSS feed is currently empty. Make use of that! Better yet, add a proper blog to the site.
  • Get rid of the “people” banner that appears above the content on most pages. It’s unnecessary, and increases the amount of scrolling people have to do.
  • Integrate a photo sharing site like Flickr into the photos page. I’m not going to email you my photos (see my reasoning here)!
  • Add some actual resources. Showcase the river valley! Teach me about the culture and heritage of winter peoples! The website doesn’t contain any of that.
  • Update the site frequently during the months the festival is active. Change the main page to showcase the current and/or next event taking place.

For the techies reading this – the site was built using Joomla, and it appears to be hosted by Webcore Labs (a Calgary company!). Not sure if it was built in-house or by a design firm – anyone know?

I also wanted to mention that I love the Winter Light logo. It’s simple and attractive, and the two color schemes work well (white/light blue/blue for dark backgrounds, and light blue/blue/dark blue for white backgrounds). Making the word “winter” bold is a nice touch, and reinforces the idea that the event is all about celebrating the season most love to hate. Well done on the visual identity I say.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not critiquing the website just for the fun of it! I have two main goals with this post. First, I am hopeful that someone from the team will read my comments and consider making the suggested improvements. Second, I am looking for lessons that can be applied to the Halloween Edmonton website, as that festival would be very similar – an umbrella for existing events along with a few new ones.

So far, so good!

Pingdom Website Monitoring

pingdom logo Pingdom is a service that monitors your websites and/or servers and can let you know when something goes wrong. Despite your best efforts, something will go wrong, so it’s important to know right away when it does so that you can take action. That’s exactly what Pingdom helps you do.

I should have written this a long time ago – I’m a very happy Pingdom customer! I’ve used dozens of different monitoring tools and services over the years, and without a doubt, Pingdom is my favorite. I first got an account in August 2007, when I took advantage of a free offer for Mashable readers (if I remember correctly). I didn’t use it right away, but when I did, I was impressed. So much so that I bought Pingdom Basic account ($9.95/mo or $119.40/year).

The two Pingdom terms you need to know are checks and notifications. A check is basically a website, mail server, or DNS server (there are HTTP/HTTPS, Ping, TCP, UDP, DNS, and POP3/IMAP/SMTP checks). A notification is an email address or cell phone number (for SMS). Pingdom Basic gives you 5 checks, unlimited email notifications, and 20 SMS notifications. Additionally, you get included uptime reports.

The best thing about Pingdom is that it’s fast and reliable. I receive notifications generally within about a minute of something going down. That’s much faster than anything else I’ve tried. I feel confident relying on Pingdom to let me know if something is wrong with my servers.

Another thing I love about Pingdom is their blog, called Royal Pingdom. They occasionally post about Pingdom-related things, but more often than not they post about the industry in general. They obviously put some time and effort into it though, because their posts are original, in-depth, and very interesting. For instance, earlier this week they posted about 12 great iPhone applications for sysadmins and webmasters. It’s the kind of thing that keeps me subscribed.

If you’re looking for a website monitoring solution, I’d strongly recommend Pingdom.

Microsoft is adopting jQuery moving forward

Just came across some really excellent news for developers. Microsoft’s ScottGu has announced that the ASP.NET team is adopting the popular jQuery library and will be shipping it with Visual Studio moving forward:

We are really excited to be able to partner with the jQuery team on this. jQuery is a fantastic library, and something we think can really benefit ASP.NET and ASP.NET AJAX developers. We are looking forward to having it work great with Visual Studio and ASP.NET, and to help bring it to an even larger set of developers.

I think this is just fantastic. I’m a fairly recent convert to jQuery, but I’m sold. I won’t build another website without it. The most immediate benefit of this announcement is the Intellisense support that Microsoft will be shipping in a few weeks as a free download.

You can read jQuery creator John Resig’s comments on the partnership here. This is an interesting kind of move for Microsoft. Instead of building their own or trying to buy a competitor like normal, they’re recognizing that jQuery is great as it is. Using jQuery will benefit Microsoft, and I’m sure it will benefit jQuery too as Microsoft can submit patches, bug reports, and other things.

Great stuff!

jQuery: Don't build websites without it!

jquery For the last few weeks I’ve been using a JavaScript library called jQuery. The more I use it, the more I wonder how I ever built websites without it! Here’s the official description:

jQuery is a fast, concise, JavaScript Library that simplifies how you traverse HTML documents, handle events, perform animations, and add Ajax interactions to your web pages. jQuery is designed to change the way that you write JavaScript.

jQuery makes all of your page manipulations easier. Best of all, it does so in a consistent, reliable way across all browsers. No more little hacks in your JavaScript to make something work in both IE and Safari.

In general, I’m a big fan of doing things client-side on the web. That might sound weird coming from an ASP.NET developer, since the whole idea behind ASP.NET’s postback model (called Web Forms) is to make everything happen server-side. I think most experienced ASP.NET developers would agree however, that the postback model is crap. It’s flawed, and if you can avoid it, you should.

We built Podcast Spot in ASP.NET, but we don’t use postbacks. ASP.NET is essentially just our rendering engine. We made use of prototype, another popular JavaScript library, but a lot of the code we wrote is just ugly. I wish I had known about jQuery back then. I’m tempted to rewrite everything using jQuery, but I’m mindful of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” adage.

It’s very unlikely I’ll be building anything new without jQuery though. That’s how much I love it! Here are my favorite things so far:

  • Works in Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Opera. Cross-browser support FTW!
  • At just 16 KB for the minified, gzipped version, it has a very small footprint.
  • The API feels natural if you already know JavaScript quite well.
  • Chainability – the magic of jQuery. If you’re familiar with object-oriented programming, you’ll love jQuery.
  • The jQuery UI API is much more consistent and complete than script.aculo.us, and the effects seem much smoother too.

To get started with jQuery, just visit the website. You’ll probably also want to take a look at jQuery UI. The documentation is excellent, and there are quite a few tutorials available online.

Something to keep an eye on: Microsoft Velocity

Last week I heard about a new project from Microsoft code-named Velocity. You can think of Velocity as Microsoft’s version of the very popular memcached:

“Velocity” is a distributed in-memory cache that provides .NET applications with high-speed access, scale, and high availability to application data.

Basically it’s a backend technology that helps to make websites perform better. Instead of accessing the database every time a page is requested, the website can often get the data it needs from the cache which is much faster than accessing the database.

ASP.NET has had caching built-in for years, but it doesn’t work in a server farm. That is, if you have more than one web server, there’s no way for all of them to share the same cache. Velocity makes that possible. For a good technical overview of Velocity, check out this post from Dare Obasanjo. Also check out Scott Hanselman’s podcast interview with two of Velocity’s architects.

We use memcached in Podcast Spot, and we’ve been very happy with it. It’s simple, efficient, and does just what we need it to do. Of course, our memcached installation is no where near the size of Facebook’s. I’ve read in a few places in the past that they run a 200 server cluster with 3 TB of memory solely for memcached. I’m sure it has grown since then too.

I have no idea how well Velocity will perform compared to memcached, or even if it’s full of bugs or not! I am eager to play around with it though, and it’s a project I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on. Velocity is a project from Microsoft that is long overdue, in my opinion.