I suddenly found myself in the middle of a site redesign…

It wasn’t in my plans, but without really realizing it, I found myself elbow deep in my site doing a bunch of redesign and working on a lot of the guts normal humans never see.

This is all stuff that’s been on my “do someday” list, but I’ve been going through a phase where “waiting for someday” is a bit of a dirty phrase, and so I’ve been trying to dig through the various “to do” lists and clean them up where I can and have time.

I originally mentioned this back in mid-july, and at the time, I thought I was done. turns out I was wrong… Here we are six weeks later, and once again I am thinking I’m at a good stopping point (not done, not by a long shot, but the important stuff is done).

Where that first phase was about making a lot of fairly visible changes: upgrading the page navigation, completely redoing the footer, adding in things like a design for the Photo of the Day and the Three Dot Lounge, a lot of what I’ve been doing you won’t directly notice.

It started when I ran a link checker on the site and saw literally hundreds of 404s, mostly from older blog postings pointing to pages on other sites that had been deleted, so off I went to clean all that crap up, and other useless, obsolete, wrong or irrelevant content (those of you who believe content should live forever and never be deleted, please avert your eyes. I’m not one of those people, nor will I ever be)

And then I noticed the sitemap, a file used to give information to Google and other search engines, hadn’t been updated since April — because I’d turned it off and never turned it back on. Oops. One thing led to another and I found myself doing things like setting up secure browsing for the site (soon, when you go to it, it’ll flip you over to HTTPs. We aren’t passing around any personal information with the site or doing e-commerce, but it’s still a good idea), and I did some upgrades to the hosting server, including adding a dedicated virtual server for the mysql database. All of that has sped up the site page load speed by about 80%, making me a lot happier with overall performance.

One of the visible changes is the return in a new form for For Your Consideration, now built out to hold and promote my review content, which is something I’ve been trying to find a good solution for a while. I like the design of that page and the general and so far, the response ha been pretty positive. The one downside is that it’s manually maintained, but it’s not tough, just a bit — manual. It’s one thing that would have definitely been easier in Drupal, though.

While I was doing that, I also designed a new look for the product/affiliate blocks I put on pages where I talk about an item, and went over all of the gear bag pages and updated them and cleaned up the look, and… Ultimately I touched and tweaked about 20% of the site, and deleted a big swatch of blog postings that I felt were dragging the quality of the site down (most were links and comments to things that had been deleted elsewhere, making them pretty irrelevant). A quick survey in Google Analytics indicated that almost all of the deleted pages hadn’t been looked at by anyone, or at most one or two people, in the last year, so it’s hard to argue it’s valuable content.

I end up with a site with a much better look and feel, it’s more secure, a big hunk faster for pages to load, and without most of the broken links and bogus pages that litter most sites as we chatter about things that stopped mattering years ago…

Why does all this stuff matter? To you, it probably doesn’t directly. To me, though, it solves a few things that have been nagging at me for a while:

  1. I love doing reviews, going back to when I published OtherRealms. I’ve long wanted to start doing reviews again, but in the typical blog setup, a review gets published, it gets read for a couple of weeks, and then it dissapears hoping that some search engine gives it some organic search love so that people will come and see it over time — and in my experience, that rarely happens. I now have a setup that will, I hope, encourage people to look at those reviews over time rather than a burst of activity and then limbo.
  2. Reviews matter not just because I enjoy doing it, but because affiliate sales through Amazon is my most effective way to generate some income off the site without loading the pages with advertising blocks that make it look like i’ve designed a portal page for some cheap and gaudy brothel. I don’t want to do that. Fortunately, income isn’t a major priority, but it helps buys trinkets and toys, so I wanted to improve that experience and make it easier for people to decide to buy an item through one of my links. And so far, that seems to be working.
  3. A lot of content gets lost in a blog; after publishing, it gets a lot of views for about ten days, then it trails rapidly, and by day 30, it’ll probably have seen 98% of its lifetime views unless it happens to get picked up in organic search. It falls out of date, links break, your opinion on it changes — and it’s hard to justify fixing it because you know it’s never viewed. That’s why I’ve been making a shift towards permanent, longer-form pages like my gear bag pages so I have fewer but longer and more detailed content pieces than in a typical blog entry, and they’re in a form easier to add or update material to over time. I’ve just revamped my Fuji XT page, for instance, updating all of the information and consolidating in three other blog posts which got deleted as their content got merged). This makes it easier to keep the content fresh and up to date, and I no longer have to worry about someone landing on an old page with bad information nearly as much
  4. And finally, I’ve always had that list of “someday” things where there was an aspect of the design I didn’t really like but didn’t really want to take the time to fix right away. These days I’m spending more and more time involved in design issues elsewhere, and in all honesty, from a professional standpoint I felt it was bad to have a personal site with sloppy design or lots of “straight out of the theme and generic” elements in it, especially when I knew those elements were impacting the site usability in bad ways. I didn’t feel the site represented me well any more from a design standpoint. It’s still not perfect, but it’s a lot closer.

Have the changes impacted the site? Looking at the analytics, definitely. Pageviews are up; number of pages visitors look at per session is up 70%. Session duration is up by about a third. And for the second month in a row, the site is paying its hosting bill from affiliate sales. The last time that happened for one month was about two years ago, so having it happen two months in a row is great. We’ll have to see if that sustains itself.

Mostly, though, the site no longer looks ugly to me, so I’m more willing to write content for it. And because the review area is now working well (or so it seems), I don’t feel like writing reviews is a waste of time, so I’ll be more likely to do that. And because I finally got all that stuff off my todo list, I can now worry less about all the stuff I never get around to doing, and more on content and photography again. And since fall is coming, I’ll soon be moving from “god, I hate the light in summer” to “any day the geese will be returning” and start getting out with the camera more…

There’s still a bunch to do on the site, but it’s stuff I’m in no hurry to start; it works fine on an iPad, but I’m not happy with the look on an iPhone or other phone-style device. Fixing that requires a lot of work, because what I really want to do eventually is rebuild this to be a fully responsive site but that’s a couple of months of work and not going to happen. I still have some material I need to shift into the review area, but it’s waited this long, it can wait for those evenings when my brain’s too tired to write original content but not so tired I go to sleep.

If you haven’t checked out the new For Your Consideration page, I’d love to know what you think about it. I’m really happy with how the updated Gear Pages came out, especially the updated Fuji page (by far the most popular on the site now).

Next up I think is getting back to writing and working on content. I want to get the before and after series rebooted and build a new one every couple of weeks. I’ve been researching whether to shift that to a video-podcast format, but I’ve decided my strength is in writing and I should stick to that for now (but don’t be surprised if I dabble once in a while). There are advantages to going to video — but disadvantages as well, and I’m happy with the current format. I have plans for a couple of new gear bag pages and I’m researching some other stuff as well.

And beyond that, not sure yet. The next big challenge for me is that this site has issues on mobile devices, which is 35% of my traffic and growing. It looks okay to me on tablets, but it’s not really tablet ready, and in some places I use Smugmug embedded galleries and slideshows, which are still flash based and that’s a non-starter on many mobile devices. On the iPhone (about 10% of traffic) the site is usable but not up to my standards.

It’s frankly telling that the changes I’ve made in this round of improvements has really improved user response on desktop devices but hasn’t changed a thing on mobile devices. I’m clearly not doing the right thing for those users yet.

The problem is that solving these is a major hunk of work, probably involving tearing out the theme I’ve based this on (Photocrati) and basically rebuilding it from scratch. that’s a month or more of work (at least). Photocrati just released a significant update (4.8) that includes some support for responsive sites, so I need to take a look at how that’s going to affect my customizations and how best to take advantage of the update. I don’t expect to wander down that path right away, but I’m monitoring the mobile usage and it may force my hand.

Right now, I’m trying to get more of a focus on photography again; as typical in my summers, enough other things are happening I tend to lose focus of the camera for a while. Once I start seeing fall arriving, the interest in shooting returns, though, and this year is no exception…

And who knows what else? I certainly don’t…

Posted in Working on Web Sites

Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Dawn breaks at the Merced Refuge. The Geese see it before you do, and the sound of the morning chorus echoes through the fog. The sun vainly tries to lighten the sky, but for a while the tule fog beats it back, leaving it a faint cold smudge. Then the geese roar to life and leap to the sky, flying out for a day’s work of whatever it is geese do.

This is an image from my new Central Valley Refuges portfolio.

  • Date Taken:
    January 8, 2012
  • Location:
    Merced National Wildlife Refuge
  • Camera:
    Canon Rebel T3i
  • Lens:
    Canon 25-105
  • Tags:
    Bird, California, Merced County, Merced National Wildlife Refuge, Ross’s Goose, Sunrise, Waterscape
Posted in Photo of the Day

Review Wednesday: Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us

Salt Sugar Fat

Buy on Amazon

One of the background tasks in my life since I was diagnosed with diabetes is to continually find ways to improve my lifestyle habits and eating. A bit part of the reason I became diabetic was because I was eating badly and neglecting what my body needed to stay healthy.

I am, at my core, an engineer and a geek, so it was natural when I decided to get serious about this to treat fixing my body as an engineering project, and that implies things like tracking metrics and researching topics and technologies to understand how things work and what the best practices are.

The first thing I learned is how much about how the human body operates is not known is insanely large. The second thing I learned is that there is an incredible amount of bullshit out there on the internet between the people who don’t understand but still insist on being experts, and the people who see an opportunity to make money off of those desperate for easy answers to complicated questions.

One thing that needs to be emphasized: there are no magic cookies. There is a lot we don’t know, but also a lot of fascinating research going on. So solving the problems I’d created for myself was something that took time, research, thinking and a  lot of work, and I’ve wandered down many paths that led to dead ends some of the time, but also fascinating side trips as well.

I’ll leave the whole “hacking my body” thing for some other time, but today I wanted to talk about one of the sidetrips I recently took.

One of the biggest changes I had to make to my diet was to wean myself off fast food. At one point I was eating a burger and fries five or size times a week. In case you need a hint: that’s not healthy and I’m still wearing a large chunk of a key side effect of that bad habit.

Despite that, getting away from it was incredibly difficult, and the struggle to get that stuff out of my diet got me wondering why and how those foods were both different from so-called “real” food.

Lots of people will tell you that fast food is bad for you, but very few have a lot of fact behind that assertion, and nobody was really discussing what I was seeing as almost an addictive quality to these foods.

And then I discovered Michael Moss. Moss is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the New York Times, who got curious about the industrialization of food and how it might relate to the global obesity crisis we’re facing.

What came out of that was the book Salt Sugar Fat: Junk Food Engineering. This is a fascinating and carefully researched book that looks into the global industrialized food industry and how the products it creates are sculpted to encourage thoughtless and almost habitual eating, through the careful use of salt, sugar and fats to push our body’s biological buttons to encourage us to eat more, more often, without really realizing that’s what we’re doing.

All of the major food companies do this; in fact their financial models depend on mass quantities of food as minimum cost, so instead of using quality ingredients they mask this through carefully crafted additions of salt and sugar and fat to stimulate your body into finding the food interesting and edible.

What I found fascinating in this book is that the companies pretty clearly know this. Phillip Morris, which has diversified out of tobacco into also being one of the largest food companies in the world, is painfully aware of the legal time bomb it’s facing, and the companies Moss talked to were much more open about their operations than I would have expected.

There’s a sub-text in their openness: no one company can solve this problem on its own without putting itself out of business, adn it’s going to be up to the government to install standards to force all of them to move to healthier food options in tandem, because they can’t do it independently.

As one example of the problem there’s been a long-running debate about salt in processed food, and calls to remove it. The reality is that any time a company does, their food sells less well, their revenues suffer, the investors punish the stock, and the company has to backtrack back to the same high salt, high fat, high sugar foods their competition sell. With their investors caring about profit more than health, it’s practically impossible for a large, public food company to fix this problem on its own.

Some countries have been pushing this further, faster than others; Finland, for instance. But it’s clear from reading between the lines that the companies want to deal with this but can’t without help, and their cooperation (as far as it went) with Moss seemed crafted to help him understand and tell that message to the government and the public.

I won’t try to go into detail about what Moss has written about; if you’re at all interested in food, nutrition and health (and you should be), grab a copy of the book and read it yourself. It’s a fascinating and scary look at just what is inside those bags and boxes at the supermarket today, and how we got to this point.

If you want to dig into this more before buying the book, Moss has done a number of interviews to talk about the information in the book. A good one is this Q&A at Time Magazine. Even better is the interview he did with Chris Kimball on the America’s Test Kitchen podcast. (as an aside, if you are in any way a food geek, Kimball’s PBS shows and podcast are the best resource for getting information on how things work since Alton Brown’s Good Eats show went off the air. And as an aside to this aside, if you haven’t discovered Alton Brown’s podcast, it is also worth your time, although it’s publication frequency varies a lot depending on how busy Brown is).

You aren’t going to hear me tell you to become a vegan who only eats locally grown food raised by barefooted monks who don’t shower (lest the soap fumes land on the food and poison it); god knows my diet isn’t like that and never will be. My view isn’t that processed foods should be avoided at all costs, but you need to use them in moderation and with some thought about what you’re doing. Over the last few years out diet has gotten a lot healthier but it’s not an obsession, but we’ve shifted more towards eating at home instead of going out, and creating meals rather than unpacking them. (that said, I’m still known to get the occasional burger, but I try for quality when I do, and I’ve hit that point where french fries are effectively inedible hunks of greasy, salt-laden starch, and I almost always pass on them in favor of using my calorie budget on better stuff) . If you’ve been thinking of heading down this path but are unsure of the data behind why it’s a good idea, Moss’s book is a great explanation of just why those foods might be tasty, but aren’t the foods that you should be putting in your body on a regular basis. Carefully researched, fascinating to read, and highly recommended.

Posted in Review Wednesday