WSG London Findability Meetup

Review: Web Standards Group London Meetup at Westminster University, New Cavendish Street campus, London 19:00 to 21:00

Concepts of Findability (Cyril Doussin) - This was a whirlwind tour of the subject of findability, mostly based on Peter Morville's Ambient Findability, since you can probably just go and read the book I'm just going to mention a couple of things Cyril talked about that caught my ear, first - what's the difference between data, information and knowledge?
An unevaluated set of symbols
An evaluated, validated or parsed set of symbols
A set of symbols which have been understood

You can easily see this definition in the context of the Semantic Web project - moving the web from data/information into the realms of knowledge. Cyril then discussed several general strategies for making things findable: The "In Your Face" Discovery Principal (basically, traditional advertising); Hand Guided Navigation (web directories and drill-down hierarchical menu systems); Describe and Browse (search engines); Recommendations (forums, mailing lists, Digg and other interactive systems). Several websites combine two or more of these to improve findability, for example Yahoo now suggest categories for drill-down with your search results. Cyril then discussed how to measure the relevance of search results, by considering the precision (lack of false positives) and the recall (exhaustiveness) against the requirements for the type of search (for some searches recall is more important than precision and vice versa) before finishing off with a brief chat about content organisation.

Building Websites with Findability in mind (Stuart Colville) - This talk was mostly regular SEO type stuff, five basic requirements were covered:

  • Understand your potential audience - this almost goes without saying, but you everything in the design and structure of your website should be driven from who your visitors are and what they're after.
  • Have compelling content - with the wealth of content already available on the web, you've got to find a way to make your content stand out. Either be completely original, which is difficult, or aim at a niche market where there isn't so much competition. This could also come from presenting existing content in a new way to better serve the needs of your target audience. Also, try and keep your content focussed - pictures of your cat might be very cute, but unless they're relevant to the main topics of your website consider hosting them elsewhere.
  • Use quality markup - this was the meaty bit of the talk and ranged across a number of sections:
    • Follow web standards in your markup, while it won't turn poor content into compelling content, it will improve the ratio of content to code on your page
    • Pay attention to your meta tags, while keywords are ignored the description is often displayed in search engine results so should have something relevant to the current page
    • Titles and headings are important,. Titles always appear in search results and will also be the default link text for any of your content in social bookmarking services (ie. they're link juice keywords - check this out for an idea of how bad many people are at this - I got "1 - 10 of about 36,900,000"). Remember your h1 heading is the most important visible text on the page, for most pages on your site this will not be your company name and/or logo
    • Text content should use the semantically correct element, strong and em can be used to give particular phrases higher weight but use them sparingly, duplicate content is not the issue it used to be especially if it's 'natural' (eg. a blog where the same post will normally appear on several pages)
    • Images which are purely design elements should be CSS backgrounds, images which have some data should use CSS image replacement and inline images should always be given correct metadata (where 'correct' sometimes implies 'none')
    • Microformats can improve findability, particularly after Yahoo!s recent announcement
    • Javascript should always be unobtrusive and you should practice progressive enhancement
  • Always keep accessibility in mind - remember a search engine has a similar view of the web to someone using a screen reader, improving your accessibility will usually also improve your findability
  • Present no barriers to search engines
    • Website performance affects indexation - search engine spiders only spend a finite time crawling your site, so the quicker you deliver pages the more will get indexed
    • URLs are an important opportunity to add keywords, and remember "A cool URI is one which does not change." Learn to use mod_rewrite and remember to give correct HTTP responses - 301 for content which has moved, 404 for content which you need de-indexed
    • Be careful that you don't block off important parts of your site with the robots.txt file

Finding yourself with Fire Eagle (Steve Marshall) - Fire Eagle is a service which helps you manage your location. It sits between your location provider (GPS device, mobile phone etc.) and your location dependent services and presents a uniform interface to those services while also letting you control your privacy. The key point is that it breaks the tight coupling that usually exists between 'location getting device' and 'location using software' which should therefore facilitate an explosion in location driven websites when it goes online (Google are experimenting with a similar thing in Gears, so it's an idea who's time has come). One very nice feature was it's use of OAUTH to set privacy levels - you can determine for each service the amount of geographical detail it will get and the API returns to the service a hierarchical object which goes down to the level of accuracy you specify (eg. country -> city -> locality -> postcode -> geo). This talk and it's associated demos/examples was very interesting, but you probably need to see it in action to really grasp how cool it could be.

Overall I enjoyed this event, though I was already familiar with a lot of material in Stuart's talk it's always good to have a refresher/reminder, and I learned some new things in both the others so 4 out of 5

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