Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Promotional Widgets, Part 2

In the first installment, I gave an overview of our sign-up promotion. As promised, I will now describe how it was implemented. For those who are interested, here are the steps:
  1. When a user signs up at Truth Rally, a PHP script assigns him or her* a unique promo code and includes it in the confirmation email for later use.

  2. A user who wishes to participate then goes to the promote page, and enters that promo code when selecting a widget.

  3. The user then copies and pastes the generated widget code onto his or her web site or blog.

  4. When a visitor clicks on that widget, he or she is directed to the sign-up page with a link that includes a variable with the user's promo code. (Mouse over the example widget near the top of the right-hand column, and check the link in your browser's status bar.)

  5. When the sign-up page is loaded, the promo code and the referring site are saved in a cookie on the visitor's computer so that this information can be retrieved if and when the visitor actually signs up. The cookie has an expiration date one week hence.

  6. If the visitor signs up, the information is retrieved from the cookie and reported to Truth Rally so that the original user receives credit for the referral. The cookie is deleted immediately after use; if not used within a week, the cookie expires and is automatically deleted.

By using URL variables and cookies, we can ensure that users get credit for their referrals, even if someone doesn't sign up immediately upon arriving at our web site. For example, they might explore the site first to learn more about it; or they might bookmark it and sign up at a later time. In either case, they could return to the sign-up page with a link that lacks the promo code. I want to thank a friend of mine who suggested the use of cookies.

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*As I've written before, I love the English language. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have shortcomings: As illustrated above, it lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun. Up until thirty or forty years ago, he and its inflections filled this role. Now, we are left using he or she, or pluralizing the antecedent, which can be awkward, in order to avoid the situation and simply use they. Many people use they and its inflections with singular antecedents, but this is technically incorrect and is not nearly as common in formal writing as it is in speech. There are also the non-words he/she and s/he, which I refuse to use. Finally, there is the often confusing, albeit increasingly popular, use of the pronoun she to refer to an antecedent that could be either masculine or feminine—which is even less correct and, in my opinion, more sexist than using he for this purpose. Meh. To each his own. Oops. To each his or her own.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Truth Tunes Update 2

The fallout of the Warner-YouTube rift continues: This time they took down my Linkin Park tune, "Runaway." I replaced it today with a fan video of the same song. For those unfamiliar with its lyrics, the chorus features these lines:
I wanna know the truth
Instead of wondering why
I wanna know the answers
No more lies

That sounds like it could be the rallying cry (no pun intended) of Truth Rally. Cool stuff.

Update: Strike two. I put up yet another version today (Wednesday, December 31, 2008).

Go Daddy Hosting

I optimistically upgraded our shared hosting service to Go Daddy's new Unlimited+ Plan, which offers unlimited disk storage, data transfer, web sites, and MySQL databases. It also includes a $50 Microsoft adCenter credit and a $25 Google AdWords credit. Originally, we were going to use Go Daddy's free hosting, which is included with each domain purchase, to set up ancillary web sites for our other domains; however, it will now be more convenient to set up all of them on this one new plan.

We paid for one year (5% discount) and used coupon code gdbb85720 (20% discount off a $75 order) for a total savings of 24% off the normal price.* We also purchased two new domains: one for $1.99, which came with our non-domain purchase; and the other for $0.99, which was purchased through a TLD-specific sale.** Go Daddy always has great discounts available, so you should search for their coupon codes before making any purchases through them.

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*The total savings is not 25% because the discounts are applied serially (i.e., the 20% discount is applied after the 5% discount). For those who would like a mathematical explanation: 5% + (20% x (100% – 5%)) = 24%.

**These prices do not include the annual $0.20 ICANN fee.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Social Networks, Part 1

Our marketing strategy for Truth Rally includes the use of online social networks, which provide a low- or no-cost means of communicating with large groups of people through word-of-mouth advertising. Each social network is a nexus of self-selecting communities that are built around common interests and are interconnected with links, such as friendships or business connections. They provide the infrastructure to reach targeted groups with little effort. The first social network we joined was Technorati, a blog network.

For our first marketing campaign, we planned on using Sprouts, which are Flash widgets that can be propagated from user to user; however, we found them to be insufficient for our needs and thus developed our own image-based widgets. Our next step is to tap into existing social networks with a bookmarking widget from AddThis. All of the posts on this blog now feature one of their widgets above the byline so that readers can easily link any post to their favorite social network, such as Delicious, Digg, Facebook, MySpace, Yahoo Buzz, and three dozen others. Once we have results pages available on Truth Rally, those will be adorned with AddThis widgets as well. They also provide free analytics so you can track how many times the widget is used to link to each of the accessible social networks.

I am happy with the widget provided by AddThis, but I was surprised that they don't provide specific installation instructions for blogging platforms. This is a very common use, and they are not a new company. Also, the JavaScript code they supplied doesn't actually work as advertised, at least not on Blogger. Fortunately, I was one simple Google search away from the solution: This blog provided properly working code, as well as instructions for where to place it in a Blogger template (see update below).

Update: I noticed that the AddThis widget wasn't reporting any bookmark activity, so my first suspicion was that the aforementioned "properly working code" wasn't working as properly as I thought. I returned to AddThis, regenerated the button code, and found that the Blogger-specific code does, in fact, work correctly. The problem is that if you click on the customization link, which I did originally, the Blogger-specific code doesn't carry over to the customization page. Thus, I ended up customizing the wrong code, which explains why it didn't work. I hereby retract my initial criticism of AddThis, and instead offer this suggestion: Transfer any generated platform-specific code to the customization page, or make it clear that this does not occur.

Friday, December 26, 2008

SEO, Part 4

Now that the interim site for Truth Rally is complete, I created a site map for it. This is not the typical site map with which most web users are familiar. Rather, it is an XML file meant to help search engines comprehensively crawl a site. The format of such a site map is based on the sitemap protocol, and can be created with a sitemap tool or manually if the site is small, as is the case for us currently. The four largest search engines, which comprise roughly 95% of all search queries, use this information if it is available.

After Google began crawling our site, I noticed that it was indexing only one page: the teaser page, which is relatively content-rich. That doesn't mean that it crawled only one page, but perhaps it did not find the content of the other pages worthy of indexing. For example, the primary content of the site's main page is a Flash widget, which web robots currently make no effort to interpret. By specifying in the site map that this page is of higher relative importance than the other listed pages, perhaps it will begin indexing it.

For those interested, here is our site map. I omitted those pages that are not intended to be landing pages, such as the thank-you page that is delivered after signing up for the site. In addition to listing the site's URLs and their relative importance, a site map can also specify the date of last modification. This attribute can reduce server bandwith by directing web robots to crawl only those pages that have changed since their last visit. The final attribute is the change frequency, which can be used to suggest how often a particular page's content is likely to be modified.

After uploading the site map to our server, I submitted it to Google Webmaster Tools, which then verified it. It will probably take at least a few days to determine if the site map makes any difference on how our site is indexed. I will post an update here once I know.

Update: Hey, it worked. The results are even in the order I specified. Voilà!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Truth Tunes Update

It was only a question of time: The first Truth Tune video is "no longer available." Ever since I heard the news over the weekend, I knew Warner Music Group was going to take away my supply of Depeche Mode videos, including "Policy of Truth." Warner and YouTube were unable to reach a new licensing deal, so all of the label's music is now vanishing from the most popular video-sharing site. This means that I'll have to subsist on YouTube's large collection of bootlegged videos until a new deal is struck. The general quality of these videos is inferior to the official versions, but they are adequate for the time being.

I was unable to find a good live version of the song, so I settled for an extended mix, whose melodic repetition unfortunately verges on hypnotic; however, it was the only version I found that has good sound quality. I also added some vintage Depeche with "Lie to Me" from their 1984 album Some Great Reward. This song deals with truth or a lack thereof ("Truth is a word that's lost its meaning"), so I think it makes a good addition. Check out the seventh track by clicking the left arrow on the YouTube widget in the right-hand column.

By the way, did anyone catch the Depeche Mode reference in the first sentence of this post? The answer is here.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Promotional Widgets, Part 1

I've been busy the past few days putting together a promotional sign-up program, which will allow those who sign up to earn an additional bonus for attracting others to Truth Rally. Users simply place a widget on their web site or blog, and earn a bonus for each person who signs up and participates in our beta test. I put one of the widgets in the right-hand column of this blog, just under the Technorati widget.

Originally, I had planned on using little Sprouts (i.e., small Flash widgets, not the Jolly Green Giant's diminutive sidekick) as the promotional widgets; however, as far as I can determine, it is impossible to publish a widget that has a customizable link, which is necessary to credit users for their successful referrals. Also, I found that obtaining the referring site from the browser doesn't work on Internet Explorer: It reports the URL of the Flash player! Sprouts do provide tracking information, but not at the level that would allow me to discern actual conversions.

Next, I decided to just use a link with an image: a 1/5 scale of our site's logo banner. I read about a technique for changing a link's image into another image when the mouse hovers over it, so I used that approach. The mouse-over image implores the user to "Sign Up Now." Try it out. For lack of a better drawing program, I used MS Paint for the mouse-over image, and the results are predictably bad—especially in comparison to the primary image, which was produced with Xara XtremePro. Unfortunately, my XtremePro free trial expired last month. I'll check with my co-founder, Mike, and see if he can produce a higher-quality image.

In Part 2, I will present the behind-the-scenes magic that makes everything work.

Update: Mike made new mouse-over images, which look much better. I uploaded them today (Friday, January 2, 2009) to our server. Check them out at the promote page by moving the cursor over the widgets.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

AdSense for Feeds

I was looking at the various statistics provided by Google Webmaster Tools, and I noticed that this blog already has a number of subscribers to its web feed. This is a good sign, but it does mean that these users probably don't visit the actual blog, which means that they are deprived of seeing all of the informative (and revenue-producing) ads that are displayed here. We are planning on providing a web feed for Truth Rally to deliver the site's latest results, so this ad deprivation will be a problem because we hope to generate revenue from that site.

That's where AdSense for feeds comes in. Google acquired web-syndication site FeedBurner, and now offers an integrated product for publishing and advertising. So I "burned" a new web feed that features ads, and have redirected all current subscriptions to that new feed. Any new subscribers can directly use the new feed, which is now available at the top of the right-hand column, above the Technorati link. This will give me an opportunity to test and refine this advertising approach in preparation for Truth Rally's forthcoming feed. I welcome all subscribers to offer their feedback in the comments section.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Inappropriate Content

This is slightly awkward. There is an ad that is frequently appearing on Truth Rally that, er, isn't quite in keeping with the image we hope to present. At first I thought I might be overreacting. But after a friend of mine had an even stronger—and completely unsolicited—reaction to the ad, I knew what had to be done. I'm not going to name the company, because I assume that they run a legitimate business. But that ad has got to go. Luckily, there is a simple solution.

Google AdSense allows you to block ads based on their display URL or destination URL. The Competitive Ad Filter, which can be found under the AdSense Setup tab, allows you to specify those advertisers whose ads you'd like to prevent from displaying on your web site. As the name conveys, this seems to have been intended to enable companies to block ads from their competitors; however, it seems a legitimate use to filter ads a company deems inappropriate for any other reason as well.

You simply enter the URLs you want to block, and click the Save button. The URLs can be as broad (e.g., example.com) or specific (e.g., www.example.com/page) as you choose. They state that the filters take effect in a few hours. I'll check back later today to see if it works.

Update: The ad appears to have been removed from the rotation. Sweet!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Flash Widget Update

After viewing the Flash widget on our landing page, my co-founder was concerned about its readability, or lack thereof. Today I enlarged the widget and increased the font size of the teasers. I also darkened the background to improve the contrast with the foreground text. Because I changed the size of the widget, I had to reinstall the embed code after publication. If anyone else had installed the previous version, they would have had to reinstall the new version as well to get the latest content; therefore, resizing is something you want to do early or not at all.

I looked at the object and embed tag parameters for the Flash widget, and one is named allowFullScreen. It is set equal to true, but clicking on the object doesn't put the widget into full-screen mode. I did a little research, and there were some interactions with the parameter wmode in earlier versions of Flash, but those have supposedly been fixed. I tested different values of wmode anyway, but it made no difference. It is possible, however, to get a full-window version of the widget by browsing to the actual Flash source file; I added a link to it for those who prefer to sit in the front row.

Finally, for those who don't have Flash installed on their browsers, I added an alternative page featuring all of the widget's teasers in standard HTML text.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

SEO, Part 3

After launching the interim site at Truth Rally, I submitted it to the three top search engines: Google, Yahoo, and MSN Live. According to Hitwise, these search engines combined for nearly 94% of all search volume in October, the most recent month for which results are available. It can take several weeks before the search engines begin crawling a site, so it's a good idea to submit it as early as possible.

Next, I signed up for a Google Webmaster Tools account, and registered our site and this blog. I verified ownership of each by placing supplied meta elements into them to prove that I have write privileges. Upon verification, I was able to access various statistics and diagnostics, which can help troubleshoot any problems that Google's robot has crawling our site. They also provide tools to analyze and generate the file robots.txt, which suggests to visiting robots those files and directories on a site that should or shouldn't be crawled. I used their generator to quickly create a version for Truth Rally. I also added their 404 widget to our page-not-found destination to improve user experience.

Entity Classification Approved

I received a notice from the Internal Revenue Service today informing us that our entity classification has been approved. This notice is in response to Form 8832, on which we requested tax treatment as a C corporation. Six weeks ago, at the time we filed, I reviewed the different tax classifications available to an LLC. Please consult a CPA to determine which classification is best for your company.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Templates

The new web template is up at Truth Rally, and not a minute too soon. My patience was beginning to wear thin with all of the CSS quirks and browser-compatibility issues I encountered. Granted, most of them were my own fault for making the presentation too complicated. So, I finally took the Gordian Knot approach, and excised the tempermental parts of the code with a single stroke. To my pleasant surprise, the simpler design actually looks better—but still only adequate.

Luckily, this template is temporary, as it will be replaced when the new CMS-driven site is launched. Content-management systems offer tightly integrated templates of professional quality, so the site's appearance will improve significantly. If anyone is interested in the template I used, you can find it here. It is bare-bones, but it achieves its goal of flexibility, browser-compatibility, and SEO concerns. The look you achieve with this template depends on your artistry and effort. I was clearly lacking at least one of these.

Update: I upgraded to an improved version of the aforementioned template because the new CSS code obviates any need for special-case browser support. It also is vastly simpler, and thus much easier to maintain. Thanks, Matt.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sign Up Is Up

It took slightly longer than expected, but the sign-up page is now up. After wasting some time with the email scripts supplied by Go Daddy, I turned to a good friend, who sent me an email script he uses on one of his sites. There's no point in reinventing the wheel: Start with code that you know works, and adapt it to your individual needs. I had to learn a small amount of PHP and JavaScript to modify these files, which was straightforward because of my programming background. If you have experience with C or a related language, you'll probably find PHP and JavaScript easy to learn.

I also spent a while working on a nice email confirmation for those who sign up. Quality counts, and professional-looking communications are important in establishing and maintaining credibility as a business. And speaking of quality, the next step is a web template to spruce up the eyesore that is currently our site.

Friday, December 12, 2008

AdSense Blues

In the hopes of improving this blog's anemic Google AdSense income, I followed the lead of a friend who converted his AdSense ads to a blue theme—based on the recommendation of his friend, who reported substantially better conversion rates with such a color scheme. I have to admit that my ads definitely command more attention now. Whether that equates to better results will become apparent over the coming weeks.

Since inception, the ads on this blog have earned a paltry $1.37 over a seven-week period, which works out to less than three cents per day. It was never my intention to generate income with this blog, but that figure is embarrassingly low. Now you know why I've got the AdSense blues.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Flash Widget

As I recently mentioned, I selected a Flash widget for our pre-launch landing page. I used an online WYSIWYG tool called Sprout Builder to create my first Sprout, an embeddable widget that can be as simple or complex as one desires. Sprout Builder is easy to use, but also offers a collection of demonstration videos available for those who would like some instruction. The process is simple: After building and previewing the widget, you publish it, which allows you to embed it automatically on a variety of platforms or anywhere you can insert embed code. Any subsequent edits to the widget can be republished, which automatically updates all copies of that widget on the web.

The widget features a sharing mechanism, which allows anyone to embed the widget on their own site, blog, or social-networking page. This allows viewers of your widget to propagate it across the web, a form of viral marketing. Analytics reports are generated at Sprout Builder, so you can track the widget's installations and views. I am using a standard account, so all of this is free. Very cool.

Currently, the widget's sign-up button directs you to a non-existent web page, but I hope to have something up very soon. I was so impressed with this technology that I wanted to report on it right away, even at the possible expense of annoying a few users who try to sign up via the widget in the next day or two. I hope they forgive my impulsiveness. For a peek at the widget, go to Truth Rally.

It is also possible to add music or video to a Sprout. Though I am personally not a fan of ads that have an audio component, I am considering adding some low-volume, thematic music to see if that improves the experience. I might also make some smaller versions with simplified teasers, which would be easier for others to embed and spread.

By the way, for those of you who noticed the resemblance of the sign-up button to the metaphorical red pill, I want you to know that it was unintentional—or at least subconscious. Nevertheless, it is fortuitously fitting.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

SEO, Part 2

SEO concerns have led us to change course with our development environment. Originally, I chose Google Web Toolkit (GWT) to design the bulk of the web site, but in retrospect this was a naïve choice. GWT has many strengths, and I highly recommend it as an AJAX platform for web applications; however, our site is based primarily on content, which means SEO issues take precedence over the responsive user interface and asynchronous updates that can be achieved with GWT.

Currently, we are evaluating content management systems (CMS) on which to base our development. These frameworks not only address our content and SEO concerns, but also offer a wide range of other useful features that will save us months of development time. Also, we might be able to integrate some of our GWT components into a CMS. But even if we cannot, my experience with GWT has helped shape ultimately how Truth Rally will work. Stay tuned for future installments.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Reader Firsts

This blog received its first follower last month, and its first commenter yesterday. If you look at the linked profiles, you'll notice that the former lives in Malaysia and the latter lives in Turkey. How cool is that? Though I've worked as an engineer since the 1980s, I still marvel at technology's reach and immediacy. I would like to recognize and thank my international readers.

Contrarily, I am underwhelmed by my fellow citizens' lack of participation, especially considering that the vast majority of my readers are here in the United States. Without Google Analytics, I wouldn't even know I had any American readers, other than those whom I know personally. I suppose most of you prefer to lurk, which is fine. But if you get involved, this blog could offer more to readers. Feel free to ask questions, offer criticism, give advice, provide additional information, or contribute any other useful feedback.

By the way, there is one more first to go: first linker. (Hint: Click on a post's title, and you'll find Create a Link below the comment section.) I'll post an update here to credit whoever accomplishes this feat. C'mon, America! U—S—A! U—S—A!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Don't Reinvent the Wheel

When developing a product, it's important not to waste time and resources reinventing the wheel. The product's designer should leverage as much existing work as is cost-effective, obtaining proper permission through payment or other arrangement. Despite my protestations, I saw this common-sense rule violated repeatedly by a previous employer, which accounted in part for their eventual failure.

I am currently working on a pre-launch landing page for Truth Rally. Its main purpose will be to promote the site and allow interested visitors to sign up for an invitation to become a charter member, a distinction that will offer certain benefits. The site will require the membership to reach critical mass before it can launch, so starting the sign-up period now while we finish development makes sense.

The three basic components I need are a web template, a Flash widget, and an email script. I've already selected the Flash widget, and am now staring at the search results for freely available web templates—over 14 million of them. As my eyes glaze over while reviewing the plethora of choices, I think I can now relate to the typical Eastern Bloc defector who stood agape, unable to decide, when first encountering an American supermarket's cereal aisle. If I don't decide quickly, it might end up having been quicker to reinvent the wheel.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Joining the Technorati

Today I claimed my blog at Technorati, a blog community and search site. This means that I set up a user profile, and associated this blog with that profile. Technorati purportedly gives blogs more exposure and provides claimed blogs with several benefits. They also allow users to follow a set of favorite blogs, and provide a widget, which I have placed at the top of the right-hand column, that allows users to easily add a blog to their list of favorites. In addition, Technorati provides original research, guidelines, and help forums among their abundant blog resources.

Technorati ranks blogs by authority, their term for the number of blogs that have linked to a blog in the last six months, rather than an estimate of readership based on page views or a similar metric. This approach has drawn some criticism, but I see no problem with it given the measurement's transparency. Currently, this blog is ranked 4,704,864 as it has no authority yet, which apparently means it is tied for last with the bottom 96 percent of the roughly 113 million blogs that Technorati crawls. This suggests that one link would propel a blog into the top four percent! If I get a link, I'll post an update here.

Update: I got my first link today (Thursday, December 18, 2008), and the rank has vaulted over two million spots to 2,548,036. Truthfully, though, it has moved up one spot into a two-million-way tie for second to last.

Monday, December 1, 2008

My Pledge

As I embark upon my third month chronicling the day-to-day activities of Truth Rally, I pledge to actively post as long as I am running this company. Why do I make this promise? Because the blogger attrition rate appears to be rather high, and I would like you to know that you can count on regular updates to this blog.

As I survey the blogosphere, I see a vast wasteland of blogs that were initially quite active, but were then abandoned as the novelty wore off or the lack of feedback became too discouraging. According to this blog statistics site, 60% to 80% of blogs are inactive within a month.

I posted 42 times in the first two months, but am not deterred by the dearth of feedback. This unpromoted blog's inchoate audience will take time to develop, and I am patient enough to soldier on. Also, I disabled anonymous commenting, and perhaps this has dissuaded some readers from offering feedback. Why have I disabled it? Because anonymity breeds incivility, the most pervasive problem on the Internet. Besides, if one cannot stand behind one's words, then I have little interest in reading them anyway.