Archive for the ‘Art of Blogging’ Category
Include the code snippet into your blog and you’ll see the familiar Digg icon, including the number of current Diggs, right next to the content on your page. Full customization details are available on the Digg Tools page. Before I found out about this Digg tool, I used Bitty browser to achieve almost the same result. Read on to learn how useful Bitty is when combined with anchored urls.
A couple of weeks ago my CNET rant was promoted on Digg for a couple of hours, mostly thanks to the impression I seem to have made on one particular digger named chrisek (have I thanked you enough?) It was really fun to see the counter go up each time I refreshed the page. One particular extension for Firefox by Jaap Haitsma, called Reload Every, which lets you set a refresh frequency for Firefox tabs, came in very handy in this situation. Still, keeping the news to myself didn’t seem the right thing to do, so I did some quick thinking.
It made sense to me to update my blog post and see if I could boost its popularity on Digg even more. I couldn’t find a suitable solution on the steadily growing TypePad Widget Gallery and I had explored the Digg Tools page for clues months ago already without much success, so I figured there was no way I could show the live Digg button unless I’d be prepared to migrate my entire blog just to be able to use the Digg plugin for WordPress.
I did some quick thinking and found a pretty acceptable solution by using "the browser in a browser" Bitty, displaying just the top-left part of the page:
I was reasonably satisfied with this outcome, but still wanted the image to be cleaner, smaller. Then I wrote to Scott Matthews, the Bitty developer, and asked if he could think of some way to have the Bitty scroll down the page, so that just only the Digg button would be visible inside the Bitty view port. Scott replied almost instantly: "Have you considered using one of the # anchor tags?"
I looked at the source of the Digg page for my blog post, discovered that there was an anchor id named "header-secondary", and added the id as an #anchor to the url used in the Bitty code. This was the result:
I promise I won’t overdo it with these Digg buttons. I’ll only display one if someone else diggs any of my posts.
The discovery about Bitty is quite cool I think, especially when you have control over the HTML source of the page that you are displaying, or when there are useful anchors available already.
As of today Answers.com made their AnswerTips service available to anyone with a blog or website. Just follow the simple steps lined out on the AnswerTips configuration page, insert the code into your site and you’re good to go. There are several icons available: smaller ones, larger ones, animated and non-animated.
These are the icons you can choose from:
In anticipation of the official press release that came out today, I had another go at AnswerTips myself to make sure the service was still working as expected, and then realized that any double-click inside an AnswerTip itself in turn spawns an AnswerTip to be opened in the same space. Now this is really useful because you can now stay on the original page and perform a gradually more precise contextual search narrowed-down through the topic that you’re interested in.
In an email exchange I asked Liz Cohen of Answers.com if web users who happen to dislike AnswerTips could disable it altogether, and it turns out they can, by checking off the AnswerTips section on the Answers.com Preferences page:
Fred Wilson, whose investment company Flatiron Partners used to have Answers.com in their portfolio, turned AnswerTips on today as well on his blog A VC. For more details visit his blog post This Blog Is AnswerTips Enabled.
If you’re especially interested in how Answers.com performs on the stock market now that this wonderful news was brought out, you may want to follow the developments on the Yahoo! Finances Message Board for Answers.com (sorry, no feed).
Then some links for those who have missed my earlier posts containing more historical background and ideas:
- AnswerTips Available as TypePad Widget (2007-02-01)
And as usual a topic news radar based on Google Blog Search if you want to keep track of the blog posts about AnswerTips, presented using Grazr:
"Keep reading, or if you can’t hold your horses, head straight for the meat of my latest achievement: an RSS-enabled Marketing Search Engine created using GrazrScript, a relatively new language to create web-based RSS applications …"
Next time I meet someone new on the web I should write down the whence, the where, the why and the how of the connection taking place. I do recall clearly that I took the initiative to connect to marketing and PR specialist Todd And about a week ago, but I’ve completely forgotten how I found out about his website in the first place. His attractive banner logo definitely must have prolonged my attention span:
Let’s forget (!) about my deteriorating memory, because what’s about to follow will hopefully blow your socks off.
Keep reading, or if you can’t hold your horses, head straight for the meat of my latest achievement: an RSS-enabled Marketing Search Engine created using GrazrScript, a language to create web-based RSS applications that was launched a few months ago by the Grazr development team. If you want to explore it yourself, I suggest you start with the GrazrScript Tutorial.
I immediately noticed Todd has a rather remarkable and attractive blog layout that he self-hosts using WordPress: two sidebars on the left-hand side, the left-most one containing an intriguing link to what turns out to be an impressive, ranked list of 150+ US marketing blogs. Here’s a quick live peek of Todd’s Power 150 – Top Marketing Blogs page using Bitty Browser. You’ll immediately understand why it caught my eye: it has RSS written all over it.
There was just one thing blatantly missing from Todd’s Power 150 page: OPML awareness. "Wouldn’t it be cool if your list were browsable, discoverable and even … searchable?", I asked him on Skype. Todd quickly understood where I was heading. Our ideas matched perfectly and over the course of less than a week, with our time zones not exactly catalyzing effective communication, I helped Todd to display an advanced Grazr widget on a page we now nickname as the "Kitchen Sink". The sections in the remainder of my blog post discuss the functionality of this RSS application and some details on how we built it.
Search Engine Functionality
Todd’s Power 150 RSS-enabled marketing search engine lets you do the following:
- Search all listed marketing blogs by keyword
- Generate a custom keyword-feed from your search that you can add to your own RSS aggregator
- Browse all marketing blogs as a combined, River of News feed
- Browse all marketing blogs from an alphabetically ordered list
- Grab the URLs to the feeds and OPML files offered in the widget to import or subscribe to in your own feed reader
- Send feedback by e-mail
Details about the RSS Tools Used
Dynamic OPML file
I started out with the OPML file from the feed list that Todd maintains on web-based feed reader NewsGator Online. This OPML file is web-based, public and dynamic, meaning that when Todd adds, changes or removes a feed in NewsGator Online, his OPML file will reflect this update immediately. RSS specialists refer to such an OPML file as a "Reading List". The other components in the Power 150 search engine fully rely on the availability of this OPML. You can browse Todd’s OPML by clicking on "Full List of Marketing Blogs" in the Power 150 Grazr panel.
Combining into a ‘River of News’ feed
The next step was to create a River of News feed from this OPML file using a feed digesting service. I prefer mySyndicaat, an advanced newsmastering tool that I’ve found indispensable in multi-tier projects involving the merging of RSS feeds, OPML files and Reading Lists.
FeedBurner for Cleanliness and Transparancy
On my cue Todd created a FeedBurner version of the mySyndicaat output feed. This is the feed that we used for "The Power 150 – River of News" feed link in the Power 150 Grazr panel. Most of my RSS applications involve the use of FeedBurner: most people know it creates clean URLs that are easy to remember, that it renders a browser-friendly page when displayed as HTML and that it offers pretty neat feed analytics features. There’s another less talked about reason why I personally use FeedBurner a lot: if for some reason any RSS tool used in the previous steps of a project like this is no longer available, all I have to do is adjust the source feed of the FeedBurner feed and my application runs fine again.
ReFilter Feed Filtering through Parameterized URLs
ReFilter is not such a widely known RSS service. In this case I use it because it lets you filter feeds by providing keywords within the parameters of the original feed URL. Such URL parameterization is essential for vertical search engines like this marketing search engine, because we wanted to offer Todd’s readers the option to subscribe to a custom-keyword RSS feed using their own RSS aggregator. I only used a portion of ReFilter’s functionality: ReFilter’s also offers an advanced syntax for sophisticated feed filtering: you can filter by field, use boolean commands and combine several searches into one URL. ReFilter is open-source, is based on the MagPie RSS parser for PHP and was developed by Sam Deelie.
GrazrScript, Creating RSS Applications
I had played with Grazr widgets plentiful in the past, but never taken the plunge to fully explore its scripting language until this week. GrazrScript is a language that is still fully in development and I very much appreciate where the Grazr people are heading with this. As I wrote earlier, the best way to get started with this is how I did it too:
- download the GrazrScript examples
- study the GrazrScript tutorial
- modify the sample applications using a text editor
- upload one of these applications back to your own server (!)
- try it out by entering the URL of your Grazr application on the Grazr.com configuration page
I’d like to point out—magna cum gratia—that head developer Mike Kowalchik from Grazr was of enormous help to get this project off the ground in such a short amount of time. No matter how we moved our goal posts, Mike offered great input. Mike created a branded Power 150 theme with a status bar logo and custom hyperlink icons that perfectly match Todd’s strong brand.
I’ve also had quite a few fruitful chat sessions this week with Giovanni Guardalben CEO of mySyndicaat, my preferred feed digesting service. Gianni was kind enough to tweak his servers so that I could configure the combined feed with all the bells and whistles we required for this project.
Lastly I’d like to mention how rewarding the collaboration on this project was with Todd. I look forward to working with him more and extending our friendship. And, Todd…: thank you so much for the wonderful new logo for CleverClogs. I truly like your design a lot.
By the time you read this, no doubt the counter is at 314 😉
And you, readers? Would you care to tell me what you think of this ambitious project? If so, please feel free to leave a comment.
Apparently the TypePad people liked my implementation of AnswerTips (see my earlier story Instant On-site Facts: AnswerTips from Dec 22nd 2006) so much that they’ve now approved this Answers.com service as an official TypePad widget.
To add AnswerTips to your own TypePad blog, follow the wizard at I Want AnswerTips Too! Note that —rather contradictorily if you ask me—TypePad widgets can only be implemented on TypePad blogs without advanced templates.
Recent mentions of AnswerTips through a Google Blog Search, displayed in a Grazr widget:
It started with Marc Slijper, who tagged me on his Dutch blog MarcNext yesterday. I must admit I had never seen Marc’s blog before. From his blogroll I understand he’s connected to several of my Dutch, RSS-enabled friends. I’ll definitely try to catch Marc’s posts about RSS from now on. Then today my friend Chris Saad pulled me into the blog-tag game. So I’m now officially "it".
I’d be most interested to see a graphic presentation of how the blog-tag meme is spreading through the blogosphere, although some tell me privately it’s not really that new at all and actually really a boring game. I took it on as a writing exercise myself and use it as an excuse to introduce you to a couple of my dear friends.
So here are five things you may not want to know about me:
- I shared my whole school curriculum from age 5 until 18 with the same boy in my class room. I naturally fell in love with him more than once. I don’t believe the feelings were ever mutual, though. Ever since I secretly maintain a name list of those who fall victim to my charm.
- I’ve managed to make procrastination into that much of an art that I think I should write a book about it: "Deferment for Dummies". I try to hide my continually recurring writer’s block, for example, by pretending that sending out "have you seen this…" links to friends of mine is of a much higher priority than to focus on the next topic of my blog. My first blog AWesome, which deals with productivity tool ActiveWords, is still online but has grown embarrassingly stale. I picked up the passion again yesterday and wrote an ActiveWords script that basically opens two browser tabs about any Skype contact: one containing that person’s blog and another tab with a Google Blog Search about that person. It was nice to play with ActiveWords again.
- I have an extreme passion for learning languages and proper word usage, up to the point where I sometimes make myself utterly ridiculous ("definately" and "recieved" being the most frequently made typo corrections in texts by native speakers of English). I’m told that I was born with a red pencil in my tiny fist, constantly improving other people’s language when I get the chance. Over time I learned that perfectionism is really not a good trait at all. Right now I’m learning Mandarin Chinese—my fourth attempt since 1994. This time my 6-yr old daughter Julia is kind enough to ruthlessly correct the shape and direction of my character strokes (I’m enjoying every minute).
- We own five ewe Shetland sheep. They live a pretty independent life on the field adjacent to our home. About six months ago I learned how to shear them by hand with special trimming scissors. This experience totally changed my relationship with the sheep. They have their own way of communicating and their own pecking order.
- A few years ago my kids and I moved to the Bay Area so that I could carry a baby for dear friends of mine. The boy, Guy, turned three recently, is surrounded by the most loving circle of family and friends that I could ever imagine and constitutes the living reward of my giving nature.
I remember well that a couple of years ago it took me several days to finish off a review (for the curious: it was Note-Taking, Attach Digital Sticky Notes…, which I wrote for Robin Good’s MasterNewMedia). In the mean time I’ve become a bit more experienced in doing write-ups such as these, but it still takes considerable time to get all the facts together, to create meaningful screenshots and most of all: to structure all the information so that my visitors can quickly grab the essence of my post.
It would make my job and that of many of my fellow IT journalists a lot easier if vendors would provide easy access to the following details when launching a new product or service:
- core focus and purpose of the product (30-second elevator pitch)
- feature list
- supported platforms and system requirements
- date launched and development stage
- vendor contact details
- screenshots, virtual tours, FAQ, user forums
- links to team blog, release notes and feeds
- other reviews and product radars
- pricing plans and trial limitations
- download link
If you need to use geekspeak, then be sure to explain or simplify these words. If it’s not obvious from the hyperlink text, consider adding tooltips to your hyperlinks telling site visitors where the link is taking them. Ask someone outside of your direct circle of friends and co-workers to go through your pages and listen to their feedback. Simplify where necessary. Added note: I recommend running a spell checker on anything your publish. If you can afford it hire a professional copy editor to proofread your material and to check your facts.
Imagine I have about 50 words to describe your product—what problem does your product or service aim to solve? Who would benefit from what you have to offer?
If your product or service has a broad range of features, then categorize them in logical groups, or group them in the order that people are likely to use them: from simple features to more advanced ones. This allows people to gradually build up a clear understanding of what your product is about. If you have unique features compared to what your competitors offer, then don’t hesitate to point these out. Just trust that I’ll investigate to see if you speak the truth.If your service offers RSS-related functionality, then point this out explicitly. It’s among the first features I’m likely to look for.
Platforms and requirements
Be clear on the platforms that you support, preferably mention also if you intend to extend support onto other platforms in the near future. Mac owners hate it if I rave about a product of which the developers do not even consider porting it to OS X. If specific browsers or layers need to be present (e.g. a toolbar that only works on IE, or a service that requires Macromedia Flash), then say so. Don’t publish a service that will only work in version 1.5 of Firefox, knowing that 2.0 is around the corner. What else does it require to start using your product or service? Do I need to sign up first to use your service? Will I get an immediate, automated approval or is human intervention required before I can use your product? What unsolicited newsletters are you intending to sign me up for?
Date launched and development stage
Is this a new launch or an improved version you are selling? Is the product in preview release, private alpha, closed beta? What is the planned roadmap from here?
Vendor contact details and feedback management
Can’t stress this enough. Provide e-mail, instant messaging and Skype details. If your product is in beta, it’s likely that early testers and reviewers run into ’undocumented features’. The quicker I can forward those to you, the sooner you can attend to them. If you can’t respond immediately, for example due to limited availability of human resources, then say so up-front. It’s frustrating to compile an error report and never receive a decent reply. If you ask for feedback, then be genuinely prepared to do something with it.
Screenshots, virtual tours, FAQ, user forums
Visual cues work wonders if you want to make sure people understand how unique your product or service is. You could provide static screenshots, animated GIFs (look at the new Gickr service, which actually inspired me to write this post in the first place) and screencasts that explain how to best use your product. Frequently Asked Questions pages are very helpful too, especially if I can see all the answers to all the questions in one glance—don’t make me click endlessly to scan them all. If you provide a user forum, then please accept my existing credentials to use it. Choose forum software that is protected against sploggers and please provide RSS feeds for the forum entries.
Team blog, release notes and feeds
Nothing informs me so well about a product as a team blog: I get a feel for the people behind the product, I taste their enthousiasm, their struggles and where they’re coming from. Please consider setting up a team blog if you haven’t done so already. Make sure your feeds are auto-discoverable. If you choose to write about other topics on your team blog also, then please provide a product-specific feed so that I can skip your off-topic rants if I want to. If you’re launching a .0.1.2 release, and choose to point me to it, then please make clear what’s new about this minor update and why I should care to have a look.
Other reviews and product radars
Do some ego searching and build a topic radar about your product. Start out with URL searches in blog search engines like Google Blog Search, Technorati and IceRocket. Add tag feeds from a couple of social bookmark engines (del.icio.us and Reddit come to mind) and feeds from any other possibly relevant, RSS-enabled search engines and you should have a constantly updated monitor of what’s being said about your product around the blogosphere. This saves me from writing a review from the same angle as someone else has already done. If you want to take it one step further you could bundle the feeds into an OPML file and present it using Grazr, OPML browser or Bitty Browser, or even create a river-of-news feed using MySyndicaat or FeedDigest. In whatever way you choose to publish your product radar, please make it available on your site.
Pricing plans and trial limitations
Provide a feature comparison chart including pricing details. I’ve seen quite a few products that require me to put stuff in a shopping cart, sometimes even sign up for an account first only to find out how much it’s supposed to cost. Then, if there’s a trial version of your software, be clear what the limitations are compared to the full product.
I prefer direct download links. Don’t make me go through ZDNet or CNet or some other software archive’s pages to get to my file.
Of course this is only my own point of view. What things do you look for when you check out new software? Please feel free to use the comment form.
"Now isn’t this ironic: usually we’re being told to make an effort so that deaf people are not excluded from conversations between hearing people, but with Jon’s ASL video about RSS it’s the other way around: it’s clear Jon is extremely proficient in ASL and this time it would be nice if we, ‘the hearing’, could get subtitles…"
Now isn’t this ironic: usually we’re being told to make an effort so that deaf people are not excluded from conversations between hearing people, but with Jon’s ASL video about RSS it’s the other way around: it’s clear Jon is extremely proficient in ASL and I personally would so much like to know how he explains RSS to deaf people.
I found this video through a blog post by another deaf blogger called Jared Evans, who maintains a single-page aggregator about blogs for and by deaf bloggers, and who advises deaf people how to use RSS technology effectively.
Check out more YouTube videos tagged with the keywords "RSS" and "feeds"
The same YouTube video search displayed using onelurv, a personalized RSS portal that I’m currently investigating:
"A speed-read button based on Zap Reader that takes the contents from
any CleverClogs blog post (or any text that you prefer) and flashes it
at you word by word at 300 WPM. Zap Reader, a service that runs from your browser, was just launched earlier this month. Contact Ricky Spears if you want to embed this button in your own website."
Repeat visitors may have noticed that I recently carried out some improvements to my CleverClogs blog. I have come to like them so much that I figured it would be a nice contributive exercise if I’d describe them in a separate blog post. Some of these widgets or plugins are fairly new or unusual, others have been around for quite a while. I purposely didn’t include technical instructions here, just links to the places where I found them and short notes why I implemented a particular widget. Of course I’d be more than happy to go into detail if anyone is interested.
A speed-read button based on Zap Reader that takes the contents from any CleverClogs blog post (or any text that you prefer) and flashes it at you word by word at 300 WPM. Speed reading has my interest for over 15 years—hey I once even programmed a similar program that ran under MS-DOS in my days as a Turbo Pascal coder.
There are now star ratings at the top of each CleverClogs post. This is a free service NewsGator Online offers to its subscribers. Star Ratings automatically tracks ratings for individual posts. I prefer the NewsGator solution over the one recently launched by MajikWidgets, because it doesn’t require that you manually generate a new piece of script for each post like MajikWidget does. The MajikWidget rating code needs to be manually embedded into your blog post and is charged at a recurring fee.
Then I implemented hyperlinked post titles, a piece of cake thanks to the very clear instructions John T. Unger made available in his post How to Link the Title of a Post to the Permalink URL in TypePad. Note that this is a follow-up to the lessons I learned from Stephan Spencer, see my previous post Taking Blogs and RSS Feeds to Market.
Two improvements in the comments section: firstly, a coComment widget that allows guest commenters and existing coComment subscribers to track conversations on CleverClogs. I enabled this after I noticed that Fred Zelders seemed to be waiting indefinitely for Chris LoSacco (Arc90) to respond to his comments on my post Pull Quote Mystery about Arc90’s Link Thumbnail feature.
Then, secondly, just below the comment form I implemented a nifty Live Comment Preview feature showing markup while a commenter is in the process of writing a comment. I slightly altered the instructions from (former TypePad user) Michael Hanscom’s post Live Comment Previews to reflect some changes (textarea id, to be exact) that Six Apart apparently made to one of the underlying templates. Michael wasn’t the original inventor of the code but his tutorial was the one I remembered being very easy to follow.
The usefulness of this feature fully shines when commenters start using
HTML inside their comment, like <a href=""> and <strong>.
Lastly, I tweaked the footer of each of my blog posts to not just display Technorati Tags, but to hyperlink them as CleverClogs-only topic searches. Just roll your mouse over a Technorati tag and you’ll see that a tag like ‘RSS technology’ now points to the url http://technorati.com/search/RSS+technology?from=http://www.cleverclogs.org.
Check back for more improvements and do provide feedback. I promise I won’t use this as a bad excuse not to write blog posts ;-).
"Dear Mr Barrow,
I was notified of your blog post BlogBridge Food Expert
dated August 10th. I immediately noticed a remarkable resemblance of several
paragraphs between your post and my own blog post In the Lion’s Cave:
BlogBridge Expert for RSS on my technology blog CleverClogs of August 9th.
Of course through some remote coincidence an email message in which you may have requested permission to copy my content may have gone astray
somewhere between your email server and mine, but frankly speaking I was less
than amused by your action.
For your information: I will publish
this email message on my website together with side-by-side screenshots of your
article and mine, with clear markups where you obviously copied my content
without permission or attribution.
I’m appalled that a fellow BlogBridge ‘expert’ uses this
type of pathetic plagiarism
to ‘inform’ his readers.
Note that I am sending a copy of this message to Pito
Salas of BlogBridge. I believe you have some explaining to do.
With not-so-high regards,
sent by email, Friday August 11th 2006.
"How do you call a piece of text that is quoted from your main text and then displayed at the top or to the side of your article?"
Today my otherwise maddening habit of losing myself on the web, while navigating from one site to the next, led me to find the answer to a question that had been bothering me for quite a while: how do you call a piece of text that is quoted from your main text and then displayed at the top or to the side of your article? I finally found the answer on a blog by Christina Wodtke: it’s called a pull quote.
Pull quotes weren’t all I learned about today:
All hyperlinks on CleverClogs are now preview-enabled thanks to the Link Thumbnail script provided by the generous developers of Arc90. Just hover your mouse on one of the many hyperlinks in this article and you’ll see immediately what I mean.
Over the past few months Arc90—a New York-based technology and
strategic consulting firm—has been releasing from their sandbox a
especially useful to bloggers like myself who prefer to practice what
In addition to the Link Thumbnail script Arc90 offers an Image Caption script that keeps the caption with the image you are annotating, a script called Unobtrusive Sidenotes that allows you to annotate a particular keyword in your text, and, of more recent date, External Link. When applied to your website External Link displays tiny icons next to your outgoing hyperlinks.
The nice thing about the Arc90 scripts is not just that they’re
accompanied by clear
examples and instructions, but also that the developers listen very
well to the comments they receive and revise the scripts accordingly if
necessary. Each script is licensed under Creative Commons, which means
that you can use it as long as you properly attribute the work to the
Arc90 received thousands of Digg comments for their releases last
month, so I was pretty eager to learn who was behind this company. I
quickly discovered that Richard Ziade, a former lawyer who’s now
partner and lead strategist at Arc90, maintains his personal blog at Basement.org. In his article The Elements of Design
Richard happens to point to an article by Christina Wodtke (The Elements of Style for Designers) in which she
adapts and summarizes some of the recommendations of Strunck and White,
authors of the infamous book ‘The Elements of Style’. And that’s where
I found the nice example of a formatted pull quote displayed above.
Christina implemented her pull quote quite transparently using CSS,
as was revealed to me when I opened the neat coding in one of her
stylesheets. I had a quick look at how she did it and actually it’s not
that difficult—so if you see a nicely formatted pull quote show up on
my blog over the next few days, you’ll know I adapted it from
Christina’s source code and that I’m ever so grateful for having
another of life’s mysteries resolved.