I'm a UI Developer from Lowell that works for a local company. I've been playing around with the web for over a decade and have been a "professional" programmer since 2006. I'm a big fan of web standards, responsive web design, CSS, HTML5, jQuery, WordPress, SEO, and open source development. Feel free to check out my WordPress themes and other work

So I have been conspicuously bereft of posts for quite a while – a fact I blatantly ignored in my recent posts. Two reasons for this. One is that I desperately wanted to update my site – the user interface, more RSS feeds to the sidebar for my ma.gnolia / flickr / reddit /etc, more free templates and/or WordPress themes, and to update the actual WordPress software – 2.5 looks awesome.

I accomplished none of those – yet. Hopefully some will be checked off my list soon, but no guarantees.

The second reason was work. Don’t get me wrong – I love my job, a lot. They pay me a good salary to do something I love. I have basically full control over the UI so that I can design with web standards – something I’ve gotten progressively better at even though I’m no Meyer or Santa Maria. However, when you do something all day it’s hard to come home and relax by doing more of it – even if it’s for yourself and something you enjoy.

The product of this recent work is of course the Helium Marketplace. This is something we’ve had in beta for awhile, had been a big success, and that we wanted to launch with extended features. This is also something – along with our rating engine – that sets us apart from every other site on the web. Which I enjoy because that means my stock options might be worth more than the paper they’re written on someday.

The basic premise or buzzword associated with this sort of entity is “citizen journalism” – of which you can read a sometimes slanted view of here. This was started really by the blog surge of the past 5-10 years. Normal, everyday people could write about what they know and become a “citizen journalist” – someone who might not have formal training and is not part of the main media machine, but that still has an opinion or knowledge about a subject that may be of value to someone.

Although some blogs are huge, it’s a rarity. Some gather a good niche audience of friends, family, and people with similar interests – my friend Paul’s blog would likely qualify. Most blogs – as I have experienced first hand with mine – experience little or no traffic. So 90% or more either toil on in obscurity or fail.

Helium was originally founded to help with this. Instead of one person writing in obscurity they could come to Helium, write about what they know, and be ranked against dozens or hundreds of others who did the same. Helium would grow much, much faster than a blog, would have the resources to market itself much better, would have better SEO, and, therefore, would have a much larger traffic base. In return, Helium shares it’s ad revenue with those same writers based upon their contributions to the site. This was citizen journalism – except on a much more massive scale than seen before and with many voices instead of one – like Wikipedia.

It takes awhile to build a good knowledge base, to train your writers to think beyond the – typically short – blog post writing, and to market that resource to the web community. As we did, a new need in the writing community became apparent – freelance writing. For the most part, when a magazine or website needs an article that their normal staff cannot produce – either because of under staffing or simply using freelance writers to save on the cost of staffing – they turn to the freelance market. They use different sites and services that allow you to list what they’re looking for and in the end it becomes like a job posting. They “interview” many candidates, pick one, pay a fee, and get an article.

The issue is the freelance community is small and you pay before you see results. This was fine because it was the only method of supplying the need. However, we found a new method. We had a collection of motivated writers looking to become more legitimate and make more money. So the premise was simple. You, as a magazine editor, need an article on “Real life Gardening stories.” You can go the old route, pay $500 for a freelance and get 1 article. Of you can post that title on Helium Marketplace, dozens or hundreds of writers will write on the subject, we will rate the articles, and then for $25-100 you can have your pick of the one (or two, or three) you like most.

It’s a win-win-win situation. The magazine gets many articles to choose from instead of one at a fraction of the cost. The writer gets a – for them – hefty payment and a byline in a real media source. Helium gets a small percentage for brokering the deal and the ability to add any unpurchased articles to our knowledge base.

So far it’s taking off and there has been a lot of buzz. It’s a huge niche that needed filling, we’re the only one filling it, and we’re learning more every day. It was an awesome learning experience to help build it – even my small part in it. Most importantly the community loves it. We have community boards in which I get the privilege of interacting with the intelligent, active, fun, and (sometimes intensely) passionate “Heliumites.” It’s a learning experience for me as I’ve grown from someone who simply went on there to read what users thought, to someone who explained features and informed the community on things like social book marking and networking, and now to someone who (surprisingly for me) has become a respected voice in the community. It’s a rewarding, sobering, maturing, and sometimes downright scary feeling.

I don’t cross link too frequently. However, since this has become a cross between a “Helium History” post and a press release I might as well :). You can see my Helium articles here – most, if not all, have been dual posted on this site in the past (granted with formatting, links, and in some cases revisions). You can see my board contributions here – though you are warned some of my early ones are bad and I freely admit to making mistakes.

I look forward to working at Helium as long as they’ll let me. I definitely feel I would wear out my welcome before I would decide to leave. Besides doing something I love and getting paid for it I also get to work with some really great people (best development team, or team period, I’ve been on, ever, by far), learn a great deal about new technologies (Git, Ruby on Rails, working on a Mac…), drink beer at work (paid for by Helium == awesome), and when we need a break (work hard, play hard) break into a game of Nerf war or hackey.

And now back to my regularly scheduled insomnia.

Random Tidbit: In a truly random tidbit, my favorite pastime Magic the Gathering is releasing it’s new set Shadowmoor soon. Which means I will be spending way too much money on boxes of tiny cardboard cards and way too much time opening and then sorting said cards. Perhaps too much time placing them on Ebay as well – a painful subject I may yet expand upon in the future.

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March 30, 2008 at 8:33 am

18-1

So I’ve had a couple of months to digest this one. I didn’t want to post anything until I could step back and look at the issue without confusing my thoughts. The Patriots are my home team and as such there is always a resentment when they lose. As any loyal fan I pass blame – the referees didn’t call the game fairly, we had a freak injury, the other team got away with something they shouldn’t have, etc.

In the end though, the more I think about it the more I come to the same conclusion. The Giants simply outplayed us. They wanted it more. This very thought frightens me.

The Patriots always won because they wanted it more than the other guy. They might have less talent, less speed, lack of star players – it didn’t matter. Somehow they’d pull it through at the end. My fear is that after 3 Super Bowls, after years of success, and after being labeled as the new dynasty by everyone else that they started believing their hype.

We’re used to seeing Brady with the ball, under 2 minutes on the clock, and seeing fear in the other teams eyes. They know he’s going to drive down the field. They know he’s going to pull the come back. They know that their worst nightmare is about to be realized.

The last 2 years we’ve gotten used to a different sight. Brady with the ball, under 2 minutes on the clock, and the other team stopping us.

Maybe it’s just other teams catching up. Maybe it’s parity catching up. I really hope it’s not us losing the core of our team. That hard work, blue collar, underdog philosophy that made us all proud to be Patriots fans. I’m thankful for what the Patriots have given us and for players like Bruschi. I realize we can’t win every year. But to get so close to the perfect season, to the greatest season in football history, to Mercury Morris finally shutting the hell up… and to fall short. I just don’t know.

Sadly, I find myself for the first time in a long time not wanting to watch football. Not caring about the draft. Not caring that we let possibly one of the best cornerbacks in the league go to sign an aging and (playoff) under performing wide receiver. Not looking forward to next season.

I miss that anticipation and love for the sport. I want it back. I fear it’s death on a Sunday in early February when the undefeated became perhaps the greatest disappointment in football history.

I wish I knew where we went wrong.

Random Tidbit:  Being a self-proclaimed – ok maybe publicly proclaimed – geek I found this blog post on why geeks make good lovers to be self-satisfying.  Is it true?  Find out.  Date a geek.

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March 28, 2008 at 7:33 pm

Search engine optimization (SEO) techniques

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a strategy to allow a site to rank in search engines (Google, Yahoo, Ask) for terms. Typically the goal is to rank in the top ten for terms relevant to the main focus of the site and within the top 1-2 pages (10-30 results typically) for secondary focus areas. Since most new sites are found via search engine results this becomes the main source of traffic for smaller sites like blogs and startups. However, even main web staples rely heavily on this referral traffic.

In order to SEO a site a dual strategy is needed.

Internally, a site must have good technical design and well-written content. This makes it more attractive to search engines and helps with “natural indexing” a search engine spider finding a single link to your site and being able to traverse the entire site tree to add it to it’s database.

Externally, a site must rely on strong inbound links in order to build the trust factor associated to its domain by search engines (mainly Google). Means of accomplishing this include using social book marking sites (Del.icio.us, Ma.gnolia), social news / technology sites (Digg, Reddit), popular blogs (TechCrunch), and niche link building (inbound links from other sites that rate for the same search terms).

Internal Design

Internal design should focus on semantic web design and well-written content. On the web, it’s said that “content is king.” Well-written content will trump any attempts at “keyword stuffing”, hidden keywords, or any other “black hat” SEO strategies (those frowned upon and/or banned by search engines). While black hat strategies might earn a short term gain inherently the search engines catch onto the strategy resulting in a long term loss either in reducing the site’s trust so they rank lower or simply banning them from the index altogether.

Semantic design is the process of writing HTML code so that content on the page is contained in semantic elements. This movement came about after the fiasco of 1990s web design including “table-itis” using tables and other semantic elements non-semantically in order to display the page the way the designer wanted. With the widespread acceptance of CSS and the (mostly) widespread implementation of it in browsers such as Firefox, Opera and IE 6+ the move to semantic design seriously began and started gaining a foothold in the web standards community.

At it’s heart, semantic design is basically wrapping content in elements that describe it semantically paragraphs in p tags, lists (many times navigation links) in ul (or if ordered ol) tags, tabular data (like graphs or excel documents) in tables, definition lists in dl tags, and headers in h1-6 tags. The use of non-semantic tags divs and spans mostly along with liberal use of classes, ids and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) then allow the designer to have semantic content in semantic tags but still display it in any manner that they wish.

The reason semantic design is important is because it tells search engines what the data means it outlines header hierarchies to allow for keyword sensing and allows it to sense how data is formed and related (paragraphs under a header being a “section” etc). Since search engine spiders can only parse and not actually read the data this allows them to parse the site more intelligently and results in better keyword matching for the site.

The final internal design facet is likely one of the most important the title tag. This is a tag that is only shows at the top of the browser window, above the address bar and is thought in the SEO community to be the most highly weighted element by spiders. Having unique, meaningful, concise, and useful titles on each of your pages is the first step to being indexed for the terms you want.

After the title tag is surmised that the header elements h1-h6 are the next most heavily weighted internal element because they perform a function like a “table of contents” for the page. These should be used intelligently and not abused though as this can be considered “black hat” as well.

External Link Building

Beyond good internal design, a well-executed inbound linking strategy is key to SEO. In the SEO community it is thought that this is actually the most important overall part of the process. Search results tend to sway towards this thinking as many times a site that has poor internal design but strong inbound linking for terms will rank higher (many times much higher) than well designed sites with poor inbound linking.

Google is the largest search engine and likely the one that values this most. Although it’s algorithm is unknown many hypothesizes have been put forth by the SEO community and results seem to provide validation.

The first hypothesis is that search engines (specifically Google) place an amount of “trust” on a domain and page (sometimes confused with PageRank). This trust for search terms shares a one-to-one relationship with how that page and domain rank for those same terms.

In order to build this trust, a site must be thought of as an expert for the terms. Typically this is show by inbound links that meet a combination of criteria. The most important is number of links combined with some sort of freshness multiplier. The more inbound links for a term the more trust. The freshness multiplier comes into effect when, for example, an older site might have more links for a term however has not had any recent links for those terms. A newer site with less overall links but many recent links for those terms might then have more trust. The logic is that data is timely so more new links earn more trust than many old links.

Beyond total number of links is links from other sites that have trust for the terms. So, for example, if a site wishes to rate for “dog breeding” having inbound links from other sites that rank well for “dog breeding” show to spiders than those trusted sites consider the linked to site a peer.

Finally, the terms in and around the anchor text of the referring link assign terms. So a link set with the text “dog breeding” in the previous example would pass on trust for that keyword phrase. This is thought to be the least heavily weighted method.

There are many other hypothesizes, however these seem to be the most prevalent and well trusted.

Inbound links are typically generated though networking in the niche community a site is looking to enter as well as using popular social networking sites (Digg, Reddit, StumpleUpon, Del.icio.us, Ma.gnolia) to increase the exposure of the site and, hopefully, gain inbound links from various sources. A campaign of using social networking sites intelligently to garner inbound links is typically referred to as “viral marketing.”

In conclusion, SEO relies on both internal and external methods. The most important is a strong campaign of collecting links from valuable sources preferably in the same niche. The second most important is strong internal design so when a spider reaches the site it has the highest chance of success to index it correctly and rank it for preferred terms.

Random Tidbit: Want to learn more about SEO?  Try reading some of the 15 most popular SEO websites.  If you use WordPress learn more about improving it’s SEO – I actually use a different plugin called Add Meta Tags. Finally, check my SEO page on Ma.gnolia for more interesting sites and tools I find.

1 Comment

October 13, 2007 at 3:03 am

Mugsy: A Friend Remembered

It was one year ago that I had to make that trip. The vet had called me and told me that although things had been looking up the day before, when Mugsy woke up this morning and the vet looked at her, he knew she would not recover. She couldn’t feed herself or move and there was nothing we could do.

I had lost 3 other ferrets at this point. Mugsy had been the first in my family and the last to go. She was the most loyal pet you could ask for. She would always cheer me up when I was down. Somehow she always knew how I was feeling.

People will judge you for being too attached or close to a pet, but I don’t really care. I had her for 7 years and, except for a few trips I made, was responsible for her care every day. She came with me to Virginia Beach and kept me company in a place where I knew no one. She was my navigator for the many trips home as well.

Like any pet owner I have many regrets – things I should have done or shouldn’t have done or should have done more. But you do the best you can and hope that it’s enough. I think my ferrets had a good life. I hope so.

Unlike my other 3 ferrets who died from cancer, Mugsy had survived cancer for several years. She had a different type that we were able to control. But she was getting old and her vision and hearing was not as good as it used to be I think. A friend was holding her, I picked up a plastic bag and the noise was enough to startle her. She leapt from my friend’s hands and hit her head on the floor. I think he blamed himself, but I never did. I did blame myself for a long time because I scared her and because I didn’t check her well enough after. She seemed ok, but shortly after my sister said something was wrong and when I looked at her my heart broke.

I spent that night with her on my chest, talking to her. I couldn’t sleep and she couldn’t really move. The vet gave me hope – I thought she would be immediately put down – but as I mentioned before that hope was dashed one year ago today.

I thought after losing the other 3 ferrets, after almost losing my dad and after my brother’s accident it would somehow be easier. It wasn’t. After I said goodbye and saw her fade, I went numb. I don’t think I felt anything for a week. I had to puppy sit for the next 2 weeks and I was so numb that as my friend lost her dog – the mother – and 5 of the 6 puppies I just couldn’t grieve anymore. I felt bad for her but my heart couldn’t hold any more pain.

It’s funny because all the things I used to get irritated about sometimes – having to take hours out of my day to let them out and make sure they didn’t get hurt, stopping them from getting into or breaking my stuff, etc. – I miss. They could break anything I have if I could see them one more time. I still wake up sometimes and think “ugh, I have to get up and let the ferrets out.” When I realize I don’t have to it only depresses me.

I don’t know what else to say other than I miss my ferrets everyday and I hope that this will never change.

Mugsy and Me

Mugsy and Me – taken just a couple of weeks before she died

All 4 of my ferrets

All 4 of my ferrets in happier times

Compilation

Compilation – scanned from 35mm prints, forgive the low quality

Not So Random Tidbit: The Rainbow Bridge

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September 27, 2007 at 7:40 pm

Shameless Plug: Blog de Purée

Figured I would give my good friend Paul at work a little link juice – although based upon comparing his Technorati rating to mine it might actually hurt him (he’s way more popular, but I’m still single and can take advantage of all the blog groupies so it’s a trade off).

Anyways, his site is called Blog de Purée and, like mine, topic hops a bit. He does have a lot of unique insight into the tech and web 2.0 world. Not only because he works with me and can harness my vast volume of knowledge (laugh track goes here) but because he has worked for several other web companies.

Some good deep reads:

  1. Online rating systems can be manipulated by crowd-hacking
  2. Can an online brand support gated or average content?
  3. Helium member writes about being a member and earning money on the website
  4. WordPress as a content management system for niche communities
  5. Social networking is no fish story on Angler’s Web site

Paul is a funny guy who I enjoy working with immensely both for his good attitude and irreverent sense of humor – which comes across in some of his writing. Definitely check out his blog.

Random Tidbit: So posting a link to my friend’s site isn’t random enough? Ok, how about a wiki composed of video game wikis? Pretty cool stuff.

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