Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.
— Hannah Arendt
A scene from Homer’s Odyssey.
Storytelling is one of the most basic of human instincts. From Neanderthal cave paintings to the adventures of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, early human history is filled with our need to educate and delight others through stories. We all tell them to share our adventures of everyday life, and we all relish the craftsmanship of master storytellers like Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor.
What you may not know is how important storytelling can be in marketing your own business on the Web. Back in January, Entrepreneur magazine featured an article called How to Become Your Company’s Storyteller to demonstrate how important storytelling is to enhancing any company’s brand on the Internet. We’ve all seen the obligatory “About Us” page on most business web sites. But these pages often fail to connect with readers because they are generally filled with vacuous marketing language instead of compelling narratives about how the business started and grew to meet its customers’ needs. In telling such stories, you not only tell your customers what your business can do for them, you also boost your online ethos—how trustworthy or credible others perceive you to be.
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I recently returned from vacation down South, which included two nights camping with a good friend along the Chattooga River on the border between Georgia and South Carolina. During that time, I was reminded of how important quiet and solitude are to achieving balance in our lives. Before I left, I had spent two months teaching courses at the local university and getting my business off the ground, and all work days and most weekends were spent with my nose in a computer screen chasing information around the Web.
Needless to say, all of that intense online work caused a lot of stress to accumulate in my brain and in the muscles of my face and shoulders. Luckily, they were no match for two days of fishing and good conversation around a campfire. Now that I’m back in the saddle again, I’m determined to strike a better balance in the demands of my online work, and so I thought I’d talk about the apps and tools I use to manage my time and balance my workload.
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I take some pride in knowing a thing or two about search engine optimization (SEO), the fine art of making websites their most visible to Google and other search engines. Using a combination of content and technical strategies, I can help corporations and small businesses maximize their position within normal or “organic” search results, as opposed to those purchased ads found at the very top of a search result page.
Achieving high rankings within organic search results is not only cheaper in the long run, but it is also a much more effective form of online marketing than paid ads and provides a greater return on your investment. According to Vanessa Fox, a former Google executive and author of Marketing in the Age of Google, web searchers click on organic results 85 percent of the time, and organic results are two to six times more visible than paid ones (11). Additionally, while search queries increased 68 percent in the United States in 2009, paid clicks increased only 18 percent during that same time. Clearly, the best return on investment is with organic search results.
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As mobile devices continue to proliferate across our digital landscape, they pose a difficult problem for website developers: how can we design sites that look great on all these different displays, ranging in size from a billboard to a postage stamp? Well, the answer is responsive design (or its first cousin, adaptive design).
What is responsive design? It’s a design method for making websites that respond or adapt to the device on which a person is viewing them (web developers may argue fine points of difference between responsive and adaptive design, but to lay persons, the two terms are fairly synonymous). Though the site you’re reading now uses a static layout, I’m currently working with a customer on a responsive site that will look great for his clients regardless of whether they’re viewing it on a 30″ HD desktop display or a Samsung Galaxy S II smartphone. Because we just began the project, I can’t show it to you live, but to get an idea of what responsive design is all about, check out the homepage below of SparkBox, a web development firm specializing in responsive design.
SparkBox home page shown on a variety of screens.
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Lots of small businesses have websites, but most of them probably haven’t hooked their sites up to Google Analytics, the search engine behemoth’s free visitor tracking service. For those of you who haven’t, stop reading this post right now and sign up for a Google Analytics account and insert the tracking code into each page of your site. If you don’t know how, contact your site designer or host provider and have them help you out.
Back yet? Good. Now what? Well, start by familiarizing yourself with the various reporting features in Google Analytics. There isn’t sufficient room on this site to extol all the benefits of using Google Analytics to explore your site’s traffic, so let me refer you instead to Google’s product overview video so you can better understand the value of seeing user behavior unfold before your very eyes.
One of the most impressive tools in the Google Analytics arsenal is the new Visitors Flow feature, which provides a cool way to visually analyze visitor actions on your site. For example, you can see how many people entered your site on the home page, where they went next, and what pages were most popular during their browsing sessions. When I first saw the Visitors Flow feature, I was astounded at the insight it can provide website owners into the behavior of potential customers on their site.
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A few weeks ago, a client sent me an email about a new online payment system that he was interested in exploring as an alternative to PayPal. The name of the service is Dwolla, and I had never heard of it before, despite the fact that it’s based in Iowa, my home for 12 years before moving last year to paradise. At first, I was skeptical, but when I started to look into Dwolla, I found the service had some very attractive features.
The first thing that intrigued me were the low fees Dwolla charges for digital transactions. For all transactions under $10, Dwolla charges absolutely nothing. Zippo. Nada. So micropayments like buying a latte from your local barista don’t cost anyone anything. In fact, Dwolla has an app for a variety of mobile devices, such as iPhone, iPad, iTouch, Android, and Windows 7 Phone, that allows you to locate others who accept Dwolla payments.
For purchases over $10, the charge is a flat rate of 25 cents, which sure beats the percentages that PayPal and credit card companies have been charging recently. For merchants, Dwolla provides a web-based Dwolla Merchant Kiosk for processing transactions either through a computer or smart phone.
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Ask any web developer, and they’ll tell you that one of the toughest parts of their job is making sure that a site design looks good in all the major web browsers. As widespread as it is, Internet Explorer has a horrible reputation among web developers because Microsoft has not always supported the latest open standards in Hypertext Markup Language and Cascading Style Sheets.
As a result, web developers often have to check their designs against multiple browsers on a variety of operating systems, including Windows XP and 7, Macintosh OS X, and open-source Linux. Naturally, doing so has often required developers to have multiple operating systems installed on multiple machines in order to cover all their bases.
That is, until now. A few months ago, I discovered a wonderful new service called Scout, which provides developers with 35+ browser/operating system combinations via a Firefox sidebar add-on. Now, I can view a client’s site in multiple browsers—old and new—to ensure it looks great no matter who is viewing it.
Sauce Lab’s Scout sidebar add-on for Firefox.
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No, I’m not talking about the Roberta Flack song you sometimes still hear on late-night radio. I’m talking about the first time I ever saw the Web.
It was in May of 1994, and I was finishing up my Master’s Degree in English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. I had spent the better part of the previous year learning as much as I could about the Internet as it then existed, and I had tried my hand at constructing a Gopher database for a professor who had compiled a list of bibliographic materials he wanted put on the ‘Net.
For those of you not old enough to remember, Gopher was a text-based information system developed at the University of Minnesota that was quite popular on the Internet prior to the explosion of the Web. Within my own text-based browser that first year, I could see a link to something called the “World Wide Web,” but every time I clicked on it, nothing happened.
Then one day, an engineering student in one of the composition classes I was teaching asked me if I had seen “Mosaic.” I’d never even heard of it, so he invited me to come over to a computer lab in the engineering building across campus sometime. The very next day, I took up his offer and joined him in the lab.