Think You’ve Got A Great Web Site? Five Reasons It Needs To Change, Today.

Author: Steve Kiernan II   11/30/11

In our consulting practice, we’re often called upon to help companies redesign their web sites-nothing extraordinary there. What is extraordinary is how often we hear that the primary driver for changing a corporate site hasn’t been defined at all. This means that, when we’re engaging a client in a design/development project, our first question isn’t “What do you want on your new site?” it’s “Why do you want to change your site?”

Not sure what your own answer to that question would be? I’ll offer 5 reasons why it may be time to redo your web site:

1. Your site was designed with you in mind

Sure, you know what you want your site to be but unless you, or other people in your firm, are your company’s primary customer why would you spend time, effort, and dollars marketing to yourself? Don’t build sites that you love, build sites that your customers will love. I know it sounds like common sense, but ask yourself (and answer honestly) if your current site appeals to your customers or to you.

If you find that it’s the latter no worries, you’re not alone and identifying the issue is more than half the battle. Now, go find out what appeals to your customers and implement some changes!

2. You have a site just because your competition has one

To be clear, I’m an advocate for having a web site, especially if your competitors have them. But your site needs to be part of your ongoing business development process, one that you’re actively planning and executing. The “If you build it, they will come” strategy isn’t a strategy.

If you are not doing anything with your web site today, start thinking about how you can use it to engage people and create a dialog with your customers and prospects!

3. You haven’t updated your content in the last 30 days

This is an easy, but often overlooked, one. Look at your site’s metrics (we use Google Analytics on all our sites), specifically the “new vs. returning visitors” numbers. The quick regression is this: returning visitors turn into customers and customers turn into repeat customers. If you’re not giving people a reason to revisit your web site, you’re missing huge opportunities to generate additional revenue over the long term. Years ago it may have been ok to create a static web site based on your fancy tri-fold brochure but today, that’s a recipe for failure. I’m not suggesting that you turn your web site into a veritable with ever-changing, up-to-the-minute information, but I do believe you need to provide valuable content that’s updated on a regular basis so that today’s visitors come back next week to see what’s new.

If the content on your web site today is the same as it was last year, it’s time to create new content! 

4. Your web site doesn’t consistently generate sales leads

Your web site should be the center of your firm’s marketing universe. A good site will help you measure all of your marketing activities and provide concrete evidence about what’s working and should continue and what should be changed to increase its effectiveness.

If your web site is just sitting there, not generating leads, what exactly is it doing for you?

5. Your web site isn’t mobile friendly

You can choose to ignore mobile, but you may do so at your own peril. The impatience of the average visitor to a corporate web site is well known-we give most sites less than 10 seconds to make an impression. And guess what? It’s even worse on the mobile web, and mobile web use is soaring so ensuring your site is accessible on mobile browsers is a good idea for today’s businesses.

If your web site isn’t readable, and fast, on a mobile device, it’s time to go mobile!


The Virtues of Virtualization

By now, most people in the technology field have had the good fortune to work with some sort of virtualization technology such as Hyper-V, Xen, KVM, SolusVM, or OpenVZ. Whether you’re a Linux or Windows Admin, one thing you can be certain of is that virtualization is making your job easier and saving your company money.

In my opinion, one of the clearest and most immediately-realized benefits of implementing virtualization in your environment is the cost savings. For the longest time, business demands would increase and the only practical solution was to deploy more servers. It’s long been understood that while an increased number of physical machines deliver necessary processing power, they also consume more power and produce more heat, which in turn, requires additional cooling. Interestingly enough, you can expect your energy and cooling costs to be an exact 1:1 ratio in most deployments, so you can see how the cost quickly adds up.  There’s also the glaring issue of the space consumed by the physical footprint of several cabinets. Long story short, a company faces the increased burdens of wasted space, higher energy costs, and large administrative staffs necessary to maintain all of this equipment.  And let’s not forget the cost incurred from buying multiple physical machines.

After some time it dawned on people that processing power and storage capacity had scaled almost exponentially, while the common computing demands of a typical business had remained about the same. Simply put, there were suddenly a lot of underutilized machines sitting around wasting both space and power.

Here’s where virtualization comes to the rescue.

In most cases a server with a large number of resources-centralized, highly redundant storage, multiple processors with multiple cores, and a large amount of memory-will be deployed as a hypervisor. This hypervisor then serves as a very low-resource operating system capable of creating, deploying, and managing “guest” operating systems, or virtual machines. With a lot of clever programming and design, certain hypervisors are capable of allocating more resources to virtual machines, as necessary, scaling their resources back down when they aren’t in immediate need, and just generally doing a lot of really cool things. This also makes the management and administration of the servers much easier from a technical standpoint, as the traditional method of monitoring a server’s performance would involve “keeping an eye on it” and involving a very reactionary approach to troubleshooting-waiting until the server started experiencing issues, then diving in head first to diagnose the issue and hoping for a solution to present itself.

But with a properly executed hypervisor deployment, the hypervisor itself already consolidates a lot of management, monitoring, and notification systems in one package.  Compared to traditional methods of monitoring, which eat up resources on your machine, increase your systems attack surface, and are typically difficult to use, all of the statistics about a virtual machine are generated in the context of the hypervisor and place no stress on the node/virtual machine itself.

Additionally, the ease of scaling a virtual machine’s resources is literally no more complicated than a few mouse clicks. When compared to the traditional method of ordering the parts, unracking the server, installing the new parts, burning them in, etc., this is where virtual machines really shine.

And of course, no discussion about virtual machines would be complete without mentioning backups. Staying on top of scheduled updates used to be the bane of every System Administrator’s existence. Now you simply take a snapshot, or similar backup, of the virtual machine prior to performing any sensitive work and restore the image in minutes if necessary.  As anyone who’s ever had the misfortune to perform a bare metal disaster recovery can tell you, this is a very convenient feature to have at your disposal.

Training Disguised…

When I interviewed for my position at Algonquin Studios, I remember asking what my interviewers particularly enjoyed about working here.  The things they both immediately mentioned were “Meet & Eats” and “F.E.A.S.T.”  It was the first time I’d gotten a food-related response to that question and it definitely got me thinking.

After I started here and I got my calendar request for Meet & Eat, my curiousity about what the event would involve continued to grow and I really started looking forward to my first experience.  Sadly, it was canceled for a reason I don’t remember so I waited impatiently for the next one.

Meet & Eats are training sessions, with an Algonquin Studios twist. These aren’t your “normal” training sessions, where you sit in a too-brightly lit conference room and listen to some guy who says he’s an expert drone on for an hour or two in a monotone voice. These are sessions taught in an informal setting, by peers who share their knowledge with their coworkers in an effort to make everyone better at what we do here at Algonquin.

Presenters are notified a day in advance that they’ll be presenting to the group and projects are picked because a Development Manager believes there’s something particulalry interesting or informative to be shared. On the day of a Meet & Eat, the rest of the Development team pulls up a chair or bean bag in the common area of the office as the presenter covers all aspects of their project and discusses how they overcame any hurdles they experienced. The informal nature of the sessions means everyone is able to ask questions at any point and people can jump in if they have something to add. During almost every session, you hear somebody say “I didn’t know you could do that!” or “Wow, that way is so much easier!” No matter what their title or role is at Algonquin, everyone stands to learn something from each Meet & Eat.

Continuing our theme of food as a uniting factor in our corporate culture here at Algonquin, after the presentation is finished we all head over to the kitchen to experience the “Eat” part of the session. “Eat” allows our whole team to get together and continue discussing what was reviewed during “Meet” over a variety of local foods-specialty pizzas, chicken wings, even a taco bar set up by a Mexican restaurant!

When I think about the benefits our Meet & Eats bring to Algonquin Studios and the employees here, I have to think about them as being more than just “educational” in nature. An event like this goes beyond what you see on the surface, it’s also about everything you can’t see-the relationships formed between the people who have to develop a presentation in one short business day, the confidence and experience the presenters gain as the discuss their projects and gather feedback from fellow employees and managers, and the relationships formed between employees munching away during the “Eat” portion of the day.

Does your organization have any informal educational events or session similar to our Meet & Eats? What sort of value do you think sessions like these can bring to the organization as a whole and employees as individuals?

I, personally, can’t wait till next month’s Meet & Eat to see who the lucky presenter will be and what delicious spread we will be indulging in!

Good Design Starts With Good Content

A web site’s design should not dictate how content appears on the page. Rather, the content should dictate the design.

Successful designs arrange content in a manner that effectively engages users. This is particularly important on the home page, which is really a gateway to key areas of content. That means that the first step in the design process is to determine what content is most beneficial in achieving the goals of the web site.

Let’s use a legal web site as an example. In this case, the most important areas of content may include the following:

  • Practice history
  • News and articles
  • Attorney biographies
  • Practice areas
  • Client testimonials

Most of the time, a web site will have many objectives so it’s also important to assign priorities to the identified content pieces. These priorities will ultimately help determine how that content is arranged and presented to the user. For example, on our legal site, we might set the following priorities:

  1. Client testimonials
  2. Attorney biographies
  3. Practice areas
  4. News and articles
  5. Practice history

Now that we’ve defined the key areas of content and their priorities, we can quickly and efficiently determine the optimal arrangement of the page by building a wire frame. The wire frame for our legal site might look something like this:

Homepage Wireframe Example

As you can see, the wire frame has laid out the content on the home page according to their priorities. As the design process moves forward, the wire frame will be used as the underlying structure of the home page design.

Site Structure

In addition to shaping the home page design, the content should also dictate the site’s page structure. Since we’ve identified the key content areas of the site, we can begin outlining the page structure by creating a Site Map. A very basic Site Map might look something like this:

  • Attorneys
  • Practice Areas
  • Case Studies
  • Testimonials
  • News and Articles
  • About the Firm
  • Contact

These represent the top-level pages of the site and will be displayed as links in the Primary Navigation bar shown in the wire frame. These links will appear on every page and play a key role in establishing the usability of the web site. If the site structure is straightforward and well organized, then the site will likely be easy to navigate and generate a positive user experience.

Engaging the User

By following the processes outlined above, we should be well on our way to driving users to the key areas of the web site, but once they arrive at those pages, we must also continue to engage them in order to complete our goals, whether our goal for the page is to get users to click a button, fill out a form, make a phone call, or just read the content.

Writing genuine, engaging content is the first step, but there are also some simple things that we can do in displaying that content that will help us attain our objectives.

  • Make use of headings and lists. Web users tend to avoid large blocks of copy, but by using headings and lists where appropriate, the content is more inviting and optimized for skimming.
  • Make use of “call outs.” We can draw attention to important quotes or statements by emphasizing that text in some way.
  • Insert relevant imagery. Many users are drawn to visuals more than written words. Adding photos, graphs, maps, or other imagery can help draw users into the content.
  • User alternative media. Many users are more inclined to watch a video or listen to audio than read a lengthy article. When considering posting video or audio on our web site, it’s important that we understand our audience before making the decision as it may not always be appropriate. We should also keep in mind that, for accessibility purposes, transcripts should always be made available.
  • Highlight related content. If we have engaged users with our content, we may be able to engage them further by providing easy access to similar pages.
  • Include a “call to action.” If we are looking for users to do more than simply read the content, we should make it obvious by including a “call to action” that encourages users to complete an action that helps us to achieve the objectives of the web site. The “call to action” may be a link to the Contact form, a link to your Twitter feed, or just your phone number.
On the web, content is king and successful web sites are those that present content to users in an effective manner.

Togetherness Through Tastiness: How Food Unites Us

Author: Jeff Hensel     11-03-2011

There’s a lot of unfamiliarity about working at a new company-new names and faces to remember, new responsibilities, and of course, the unshakable feeling of being the newbie in the office. Regardless of how welcoming your co-workers are, it’s difficult not to feel a bit out of place at first. For me, however, that feeling quickly dissipated, as just a few short weeks into my employment at Algonquin Studios, my first F.E.A.S.T. (Food Enthusiasts for Algonquin Studios Togetherness) was announced. The idea behind F.E.A.S.T. is simple, people vote on a theme and everyone cooks a dish that fits the theme. I saw this as a chance to really bond with my fellow co-workers, as I consider myself a bit of a foodie and food is always something I’m eager to discuss.

E-mails were shot back and forth discussing possible ideas, but it was quickly settled that the theme for the month would be “pumpkin.” It didn’t take long to figure out just how serious my co-workers took food, making dishes like pumpkin-stuffed ravioli and pumpkin-cranberry-walnut muffins. I decided I would do a pairing of pumpkin and sausage in the form of a soup, not willing to risk making a fool of myself in my first month by completely butchering something unfamiliar.

While we’re encouraged to do prep work for each dish at home (Algonquin is still a business, after all), there’s always a good amount of cooking that needs to be done “day of” before everyone can eat. Thanks to our full, in-office kitchen, employees are able to spend a decent amount of time cooking together, a wonderful way to interact with our co-workers on something other than work. The bonding experience cannot be overstated; it gave me an opportunity to meet John, now my good friend, over a topic that we were both familiar with. It made sharing our food-related past easy, and gave us a chance to get to know each other in a way that we might not have otherwise. Eating the finished product with the rest of the company is an absolute delight, as well.

People say the hardest thing about working anywhere is getting along with everyone. At Algonquin Studios, this has certainly not been the case. We’ve got a slightly different business philosophy in general, the atmosphere here cultivates togetherness, and walking into work has never had the typical “corporate grind” feeling for me. As cliché as it may sound, so much of what we do reminds me that Algonquin Studios isn’t just a company, it’s also a family and, for that reason, the monthly F.E.A.S.T. we hold is invaluable.

Besides, it’s an excuse to stuff yourself silly with pumpkin cheesecake at work.

In what ways does your company encourage (or discourage) community in the workplace? How do you feel your corporate policies have helped or hindered your relationships with your co-workers, managers, or even clients?