Friday, January 16, 2009

Internet Explorer 8

Microsoft disables automatic IE 8 downloads | The Register
Microsoft will cushion you from the Internet Explorer 8 standards mess with software to prevent automatic download of its next browser to your machine.

Ask any web designer what their least favourite browser is and it's a good bet that Internet Explorer will be their reply. It isn't because of some anti-Microsoft sentiment, or because it isn't as cool or as customisable as other browsers, nor even anything to do with page loading speed, but quite simply because it doesn't follow the official W3C web standards. Microsoft acknowledges this problem and since Internet Explorer 6 (IE6) has been working to bring its browser into line with W3C specifications.

The Browser Wars

The browser wars of the 1990s between the now defunct Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer started off this problem, as each browser began following only some standards, or worse, only following their own standards.

Surprisingly, back then it was Microsoft's browser that was the most standards compliant, and Netscape that used its own 'standards'. By the time that IE had won the browser war and was used by 96% of web surfers, it too had moved onto supporting its own proprietary standards. At this point it wasn't too much of a problem, as web designers could simply design for IE, as it was a fairly safe bet that most of the viewers of a website would be using it.

It wasn't all rosy however, the browser war had meant there had been a stagnation in bug fixes and actual development, web designers were stuck designing in lengthy, bloated code as the slicker design method of HTML and CSS didn't work properly with Internet Explorer.

CSS

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) were meant to make the design process far, far easier and also make the viewing of web pages faster and more aesthetically pleasing. Web pages using CSS load faster, are easier to alter and allow more complicated layouts, but for years after CSS was accepted as a standard, web designers were stuck using the older, more troublesome table based designs.

With the decline of Netscape that preceded its eventual demise, it was clear that Microsoft were in the driving seat of website design. From 2002 many web designers created websites aimed only at IE5.5 and IE6,  by this point IE had become mostly CSS compliant. Anyone attempting to design to official W3C standards, was asking for trouble and many headaches.

Then the second browser war started.

Firefox

Firefox was more standards compliant than IE, which meant that website designers had another browser to consider when designing a website, especially as Firefox became instantly popular and standards compliant websites were back in vogue.

Many designers were therefore creating W3C compliant websites, and uncovering the power of CSS. But upon viewing them in IE, they'd discover things like the double margin bug, three pixel bug, float drop problems and also the fact that IE6 doesn't handle transparent PNGs.

More than a few of them were scratching their heads and wishing 'If only IE were like Firefox!' With the popularity of Firefox soaring, accounting for 21% of the browser market by the end of 2008, it seemed that Microsoft heard.

IE7

There are workarounds and so called hacks to get websites to look in IE6 as they do in Firefox but they were a hassle and meant much fiddling on the part of the designer. Firefox and Apple's Safari were far more forgiving and getting more and more popular with users, in response Microsoft released IE7.

Although still not fully standards complaint, IE7 was the most compliant browser yet and Microsoft promised to go even further with IE8.

IE8

IE8 is fully standards compliant, but after a decade of IE only designs, that may not be a good thing. If your website is fully standards compliant, or was aimed primarily at Firefox but with a few IE hacks, you should be OK, but if it was aimed mainly at IE6, you may have problems. It is certainly worth checking out IE8 to see what your website looks like as you may find, particularly if it is a few years old, that is doesn't look as good as it did.

It seems that Microsoft have delayed IE8 to allow businesses to do precisely this. Microsoft did see this problem coming and have added two viewing modes for IE8, the default mode which is the standards compliant viewing mode and compatibility mode, which allows the user to view the website as if viewing with an older version of IE. Sadly though, few people are switching modes, meaning a lot of websites are not displaying correctly in IE8.

Although this may not be too much of a problem at the moment, especially with Microsoft's delaying the release of the browser, it could become a problem very quickly. Although it was released only two years ago, IE7 accounts for 50% of the browser market,  the previous version, IE6 just 20%.

Two events this year are likely to push the uptake of IE8 to be faster than that of IE7.

The release of Windows 7 later this year, which will most likely ship with IE8 as standard and also the fact that mainstream support for Windows XP ends in April 2009. Those buying a new PC will have the choice of Vista, or Windows 7, both of which will likely have IE8 as their default browser.

If you're not sure what your website will look like, you can use this website to preview your website in IE8 (and other versions of IE) for free. Needless to say the Horizon Web Development website and the Horizon Flash Memory website display perfectly.

Others, aren't so lucky.   



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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Get the most from your website

coin_stack Many people see the Internet as a fast track to cash, and while you can make a lot of money on the Internet, it is not the fast track, or get rich quick scheme that many people believe it to be.

That said there are ways to maximise your website's potential, and we'll take a look at them below.

Running a website for profit

Like any other kind of business, running a website for profit, be it an e-commerce website or otherwise, is hard work. If you are expecting to simply create a website, place it on the Internet and have customers beat a path to your door, you are in for a rude awakening.

This is no different from running a small shop, sure you may get a passing trade, but to really get your business doing well you have to get the brand out there and well known, normally through advertisements.

The Internet is no different, if you have a website and are looking at making a profit from it, the search engines hold the key.

Visitors

Visitors to your website can usually be broken down into two categories, those who found your website from information in the real world, such as adverts in the local press or word of mouth, and those that found your website via the search engines.

If your business is wholly web based and you do not have any other way of advertising then the search engines are even more important to your business.

Organic

The most common way for visitor to find your website is by searching for your product and services in the search engines, known as natural or organic search results.

The success of your website in the organic search results depends on a number of factors; if your website was built by professionals using modern and search engine friendly techniques, such as XHTML and CSS then it has a good start. A good mix of keywords is also needed on the pages, again this relies on a professional website designer as keywords spamming or writing page content without thought to things such keywords could leave your site very difficult to find.

A simple example is if you want people searching for Acme XL Widgets to find your website, then you must have that phrase somewhere on the website, and not in picture or flash format.

Importance and Relevance

It's not enough just to have the right keywords on the page though, to ensure that your website comes in the top rankings and not on page 506 you have to make sure that the search engines see your website as important (or authoritative) and relevant.

The more links from quality websites that you have, the more important your site will be considered by the search engines. Of course getting quality websites to link to your own site is not easy, but the first step is to have interesting, useful and informative content on the pages that people will want to link to.

To show the search engines and visitors that your site is both important and relevant, you must update it regularly. Google and the other search engines see websites that do not change their content as less relevant and out of date. If Google checks your website every few months and find the same content, neither it nor any visitors are going to be in any rush to return.

A simple way of have useful and regularly updated content is to have a blog.

Blogging

Search engines love blogs and we advise every business to have some kind of blog on their website. Blogs offer a simple way of having regular content and information on your website, even if it is just product reviews or the latest information about your services.

Discussing issues relevant to your industry, giving help and advice or giving something away for free is a great way of getting lots of hits on your website and also some good quality links to it. 

Adverts

The quickest and easiest way of getting people to your website is through Pay Per Click (PPC) Advertising, such as Google's Adwords program. Those searching for keywords that you have chosen will view your advert, and hopefully click it to visit your page.

Although getting the visitors (or hits) is fairly easy, getting a return on your advertisement investment is not. Unlike other ways of having search engines refer visitors to your website, it isn't free. Moreover as you pay for every visitor, so getting as many visitors as possible isn't the idea, rather getting the right visitors to your website.

People clicking your advert by mistake or visiting your website looking for something that you don't sell all cost money. The trick with PPC advertising is to get only those that are interested in purchasing your product/service to click on your advert. This was covered in more detail in an earlier article, How to get the best from Google Adwords.

If you are already using Google Adwords but have found that you are getting a low return on your investment, lots of impressions but a low Click Through Rate (CTR) and a high cost per click, you should consider our Google Adwords Consultation.

Frugal

Google Product Search (formerly Froogle), offers those with a smaller budget a way of advertising their products for free. Signing up for a Google Base account allows website owners to submit a list of their products so that they appear in Google Product Search.

The ability to localise products and services means that even small, local business can target the right customers.

To get the best overall benefit from the search engines, Google's Product Search and Adwords, you need a fully e-commerce website.

E-Commerce

Once, such websites were prohibitively expensive to all but big businesses. Today however, you can purchase a fully automated, custom designed e-commerce website for one off payment of just £249.

Such a website allows you to add your own products quickly and easily, describing in as much detail as needed your product/service. This of course allows you to cover the keywords aspect of your website as well as the relevant and constantly changing content that the search engines like.

Such websites also allow you to better tailor Google Adwords and Products Search to link directly to a specific product or product category and get a better return on your time and investment.

Our package includes Google Adwords setup, a free blog, optimised website code and text and an excellent hosting package.

There are cheaper e-commerce website packages around, some are also open source and free, but to make sure that all the boxes are ticked; including the vital and often overlooked ones, such as security and usability, you should purchase a professional package from a reliable company.

Remember, you pay for the website not only in the short term, but you will also bear the long term costs of having a website on the Internet, so your best bet is a site that will give you a return on your investment and an advantage in making money online.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Why Flash isn't always good

Many people ask for flash based websites, believing them to be the best way of impressing visitors, having a professional and modern looking website and also giving visitors an interactive, and easy to use, browsing experience.

Whilst some of the above may be true, there are two areas in which Flash based websites lose out - accessibility and rankings.

Search engines

The importance of search engine rankings should not be understated, after all, what use is a website if no one can find it.

This extract from an email from Google explains:

"While our spidering practices may change in the future, we find that Flash is not a very user-friendly experience in a lot of ways. It is wholly inaccessible to the sight-impaired, not renderable on many devices (such as phones, PDAs), and so on. In particular, we hugely frown upon navigation done exclusively in Flash."

I have seen many sites fall into the trap of using flash completely, some do have a HTML site too, most do not. Using flash for the site navigation not only means that Google may not like your website as much non-Flash sites, but it may also mean that Google is unable to find and index anything other than your homepage.

It also means that those using mobile phones, PDAs and screen readers will be unable to view your website, let alone navigate through it. This wasn't much of a concern in the past, but with most mobile phones been web enabled, you could be cutting out a large portion of visitors.

While things have improved regarding search engines, notably Google, since this email was sent, the fact remains that if two exact sites were made, one in flash, the other in CSS and HTML, the CSS and HTML site would be ranked higher.

Small businesses

This is an important point to consider, particularly for small and medium sized businesses. These businesses don't have the kind of income to spend on teams of SEO specialists to get the best rankings, unlike the big companies that they may be competing with.

SMBs are going to be paying quite a bit of money just to get decent rankings, so anything that could count against them should be avoided, and whilst non-Flash website may not look as attractive or as flashy; SMBs need to get the best possible rankings from their content.

The bigger picture

It is probably best to think of Flash like pictures, they may look great but you really wouldn't want a site made up entirely of pictures, unless you're comedian Jerry Sadowitz.

Apart from taking far longer than text to load, even if a picture contains text, it can't be read by the search engines. Jerry Sadowitz's site for instance has only these words associated with it: Jerry Sadowitz - Comedy, Magic and More, and only those words as they are the title to every page. The search engines don't see pictures, they only see text, so an all picture site such as that of Jerry Sadowitz is virtually blank.

Pictures should be used to complement the site content (text), not replace it. The same goes for Flash, it should have a place on a website but should be used sparingly and not as a replacement to a website.

It is possible to get a great looking site through CSS and HTML alone, and then of course any amount of pictures and Flash can be added to complement that.

Although it may change in the future, CSS and HTML is still the best way to tick all the relevant boxes when it comes to your website.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Be Ranked No.1 on Google!

"We can guarantee to get your site a Top Ten ranking in Google, MSN, Yahoo, and Lycos…."

I get emails like the above quite a lot, usually I can't go a week or so without having some random company sending me an email guaranteeing that they'll get my site ranked No.1 in Google, or even just the Top Ten for the less optimistic ones.

The fact is that no one can guarantee any kind of ranking on Google and the other search engines, not a top ten ranking, and certainly not the prized No.1 position. Many of the so called SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) specialists that send these emails are just after a quick buck. Some won't even attempt to get you higher others will get you ranked for a keyword or phrase that you are already highly ranked for, such as in our case Horizon Web Development, which we are already in the top two for, as you can see here (I'll save you having to type in "Horizon Web Development").

Others use unscrupulous tactics that could get you banned from Google and other search engines, typically after you've paid. A common tactic is what is known as keyword spamming or keyword stuffing whereby they literally cram your pages with keywords in lists or in such a way as to make sections of your site unreadable. Tactics such as this usually work quite well at first, normally right up until after you've parted with your cash and thanked them for the good work, and then get you banned.

A famous US company that employed unscrupulous tactics is the one mentioned in this article.

So how can you be sure that you're aren't being conned into parting with your hard earned cash for little or no benefit? Well here's a bit of advice:

  1. Always check out their website and find out how well it is ranked.
  2. Carry out a quick Google search to see if you can find recommendations or complaints out there from any of their previous customers, or to just get a general idea of their reputation.
  3. If they have a list of previous clients, contact one or two to ask what they thought of the company.
  4. Ask them what they are going to actually do to get your site better ranked. Never hand over control of your site to a company without knowing exactly what they are going to do.
  5. Ask for a detailed invoice so that you can clearly see what your money has got and don't let them blind you with jargon.
  6. Finally make sure that you check to ensure that they've delivered what they have promised, preferably before you pay!

At Horizon Web Development we design our websites with Search Engine Optimisation in mind and are always on hand to offer advice of keywords, SEO, rankings and search engines.


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Monday, May 07, 2007

Is your site well designed?

It's a common problem. Many businesses have websites designed by local web design companies and believe that they've received a good service, when in fact they receive an absolute turkey of a website that looks like it was designed by an unskilled amateur ten years ago. But how can you tell if you have a well designed site?

The first thing to check your site for is what's known as the 1990s look. These are sites that were either designed in the early days of the internet or by designers who learnt their trade in the early days and haven't updated their skills. A classic example of this kind of site is Northbridge Police Department.

How to tell if you have a site from the 1990s

  1. Background image - The days of the quirky repeating background image are fortunately long gone. If your site has a repeating background such as the one in the above example you should think about a change. A background image shouldn't interfere with what's on the page or make the text difficult to read and it certainly shouldn't repeat an image over and over.
  2. Animated GIF's - Another sure-fire way to make your site look dated. The animated GIF was a novel idea, briefly, and has long since lost its charm. Nowadays annoying flashing animations such the US flag in the above example make a site look out of date, cheap and unprofessional and should be avoided at all costs. It is much better to have a nice clear picture that complements your design than some meaningless moving picture.
  3. Music – It is simple to embed a little sound clip into a page and so about ten years ago everyone was doing it, and to be fair I was one of them. But I soon realised that there is nothing more annoying when trying to read text than having the same piece of music playing over and over and over. It is not only distracting, but if it can't be turned off, deeply annoying. Remember the person viewing your site may be doing so late at night, on a train or during a meeting, so the last thing they want is to have a crap little ditty that you particularly liked blaring out uncontrollably. If your site plays a little tune, remove it. If you disagree and like having the sound effect, try reading your whole site text with it playing and see if you change your mind.
  4. Splash Pages – Something else that was 'in' several years ago. It seemed that if you wanted to portray an air of professionalism on your website then you needed a splash page. However today nothing could be further from the truth. If you have one, get rid of it as soon as possible. Apart from wasting the most important page on your site and being annoying it is one of the most obvious giveaways of a site from the 1990s. Most web designers avoid these now, however some clients still ask for them.
  5. Site Best Viewed with…. – If your site has "Site Best Viewed at 800x600" or something along those lines then it is in serious need of a revamp. These kinds of messages were popular in the late 1990s, I didn't actually use them myself but most sites did and even today there are some relics of sites that still have them. They are completely pointless as no visitor would ever really change their screen resolution just to view your site, they'd just go elsewhere. It also shows laziness on the part of the web designer, as if they either couldn't be bothered or weren't capable of designing a site that looks good on any screen resolution. The other popular "Best Viewed with…" message from the time was "Best Viewed with Internet Explorer/Netscape." These messages (in most cases buttons) were from the browsers wars of the mid-nineties between Netscape and Internet Explorer. If your site has one of these buttons (and many do) remove it immediately. The so called 'Browser War' ended in 1999 (yes that is eight years ago!) so you are making your site look incredibly dated. More so if you have a Netscape button as Netscape pretty much disappeared and now accounts for less than 1% of the browser market so if you are claiming that your site is best viewed with Netscape on your homepage you are alienating 99% of your visitors.
  6. Blinking/Scrolling Text – These are both now seen as something of a joke among web designers. Blinking text was never really that popular amongst designers but because it was a simple effect, achieved by just placing <blink> either side of the word you wish to make blink (e.g. My <blink>Flashing</blink> Text), that didn't require a knowledge of JavaScript or DHTML it was widely used by hobbyists and amateur web designers for homepages. It was a similar story with scrolling text and both became associated with poorly designed, amateurish sites and so just about everyone stopped using them by the late 1990s. Again if your site has them, look for a new designer.
  7. Garish Text/Background Colours – This is another sign of a bad web designer or a really old site from the 1990s. Simply because you could have a variety of different coloured backgrounds many people, especially new or amateur website designers did. This led to sites that had text that was near on impossible to read. Colour clashes such as a bright red background and yellow text were highly popular! Some sites even had sections in different colours resulting a multi coloured mess that was impossible to read. The general rule of thumb when it comes to backgrounds is to have a white or very light coloured background with black text or a very dark or black background with white text. Most sensible designers don't try to go for something in between. If your site has a coloured background and coloured text you should certainly think about a change. Not only does it make your site text hard to read but it makes it look like a personal website from the late 1990s.
  8. Non-Standard Fonts – Another technique that was popular with novices back in the 1990s was to make good use of the available fonts, I have even come across sites that had different fonts for each paragraph! While it may have seemed a good idea at the time, designers must remember that not everyone has the same fonts on their PC. Even those that did have the necessary fancy fonts would most likely find the text difficult to read. If your site is using fancy fonts as the main site text you should think about a changing to a more common font, such as Arial, Georgia, Tahoma or Verdana. Studies have shown that the easiest fonts to read are Sans Serif fonts such as Arial and Verdana so while it may look fancier to have a great unique font, the viewer won't appreciate it and will probably think your site is from the late 90s.

If your site doesn't have any of the above then you can breathe a sigh of relief but that doesn't necessarily mean that you have a well designed site. There is more to a well designed site than simply the look of it but we'll come back to this in a future post.


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