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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Blog Promotion: Do Traffic Exchanges Work?

If you're reading this, chances are you've come from one of two sources: you have found this site through a Google search or, more likely, you're here from one of the traffic exchanges I participate in. Between them, Blogazoo, Blog Explosion, and BlogClicker are responsible for about 30% of the traffic I receive here every day. The rest comes from Google and other search engines and from links from other blogs.

Blog traffic exchange sites work on the principle of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." Once you sign up, you earn credits by surfing other people's blogs, which the traffic exchange site serves up on a scheduled rotation. Your banked credits enable your site to be inserted into the rotation, usually on a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio. Others will view it because they have to (there's usually a mandatory minimum amount of time one must spend at a blog to gain credits). You can also buy credits if time is at a premium, which is what I have chosen to do. Either way, the result is guaranteed traffic.

But is it quality traffic? Debate rages online as to whether these sites are really useful in terms of building a long-term loyal reader base for your blog. I see this myself in my own stats. People deposited here by one of the exchanges spend barely 5 seconds scanning this blog, then they are off to earn the next credit. There's a chance these visitors may find something useful, but it's minimal since they've been directed here entirely at random.

Compare that scenario to someone who has found this page through a search engine query. Their need at that moment is highly specific, and the search engine directs them to a page containing the keywords they queried. It is likely they will find what they're looking for, if not from the information in the post concerned, then by following links to other posts or sites. My stats confirm this behavior. These visitors stay longer, explore the blog more thoroughly, and are more likely to become regulars.

So, are the traffic exchanges a waste of time? I don't think so. I have seen a handful of people originating from these sites stop by to post comments. A few have become regular visitors (maybe that's you?). Any traffic is better than no traffic, and repeat exposure builds familiarity and confidence. In fact, advertising research shows that repeated exposure to ads enhances credibility and aids brand awareness, message recall, brand opinion, and purchase intent. I remember learning, in a marketing course a million years ago, that it takes 5 to 9 ad impressions before the average consumer responds to an advertisement's call to action. Does the same apply to blogs? I think so. Each time you see this blog appear in an exchange rotation, your sense of recognition grows. The posts will vary. Maybe eventually you'll encounter one that's relevant to your interests. Ultimately, it's all about content.

If you wish to try out blog traffic exchanges, there are lots to choose among. Here is a short list to get you started:

No endorsement implied, other than for the first three listed, all of which have produced good results for me (in terms of raw traffic).

Some of the most common complaints about exchanges include poor rotation, too many low quality blogs, and the risk of viruses or trojans.

If you have had experiences with any of the sites listed here, please drop a comment on me. Rants and raves equally welcome.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Tools for Taming Your Feeds

It seems to me that most of the Web 2.0 apps emerging every week are devoted to some aspect of retrieving and organizing Internet content. Every day, there are new tools for sharing favourites. Likewise, the ability of RSS to push relevant content to our desktops has led to a swarm of online applications for reading, organizing, and managing feeds.

Good thing too, because it doesn't take long to start feeling overwhelmed once you discover this potent automation tool. I'm struggling to keep up with the daily flood of posts provided by just nine feeds — and that's probably a fraction of the volume inundating the seriously feed-addicted. RSS has put us all at risk of information overload.

I have test-driven several of the feed readers linked from the sidebar at left below, but it was not until the recent discovery of two new tools that I began to feel that I might just be getting the chaos under control:

  • Pageflakes is a higly customizable web organizer that combines a feed aggregator and reader with several useful desktop tools. You can add as many new feeds as you wish, organizing them on separate tabs for ease of access. Accept the default setup, which includes an address book, to-do list, notepad, weather, local movies, and more, or customize your desktop by choosing from a huge list of applets. You can append everything from mini spreadsheets and calculators to custom searches. I LOVE this application so much it has become my new browser start page.
  • Netvibes is a virtually identical tool (I'm not sure which came first). Like Pageflakes, you can add new feeds, organize content and tools onto separate tabs, and customize the interface. It doesn't offer the selection that Pageflakes does, but it has one especially nice feature: you can color-code your different feeds for at-a-glance recognition. E.g. you could have all your web design feeds coded green, your pop culture feeds blue, and your mainstream media news stories orange.

I find both of these applications more intuitive and easier to use than the other feed readers listed here. Now, if I could just marry them, I'd be truly happy. For the time being, I'm using both of them to fend off the information deluge.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Using Photoshop's Wave Distortion Filter to Create Abstract Art

When I review my shots after a photography outing, I inevitably end up using Photoshop to make minor image corrections: using the curves tool to change the light and dark points, blurring backgrounds, sharpening a bit here and there, perhaps adjusting colour balance. But I rarely play around with Photoshop's other filters — partly, I guess, because I'm a bit of a purist, but mostly because time is always at a premium around here. I make an exception, though, for the distortion filters. The wave filter, in particular, can produce dramatic results.

Even mediocre photographs can be transformed into outstanding art pieces after being run through this filter. Any image with prominent horizontal and/or vertical elements and strong saturated colour is a good candidate for this treatment, which provides substantial control over the wave effect. The filter dialog box allows you to set the number of wave generators and specify wavelength, amplitude, and scale. (I'm not sure what scale does, but varying the setting creates interesting effects.)

I have included a couple of before and after examples to show you the results produced by this filter. The bold lines and strong colour of the image at top left made this architectural shot a good wave distortion candidate. The image of a stand of bamboo was uninspiring on its own. Running it through the wave filter transformed it into a colourful swirl of undulating pools and eddies. Two previously photo-realistic images have become delightful works of abstract art, and I am hooked.

I have created a Flickr account so you can see larger versions of both the originals and the distorted results.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Blogger Template Hacks: Changing Fonts

When I created this blog, I accepted the default font specified in Doug Bowman's Minima template design: an attractive serif typeface called Georgia. I thought it was time, however, for a minor facelift to tie in more closely with WebLens' look and feel. Fortunately, changing fonts is quick and easy with the CSS built into Blogger's templates. Here's how, for those new to this:

  1. Open your Blogger template and find the CSS for the Body tag.
  2. Between the opening { and closing } parentheses, add the following code:
    font-family: "Trebuchet MS", Tahoma, Arial, sans-serif;
  3. If there are other font declarations for the body tag, make sure they don't specify a different font. In the original Minima template, for example, the body style contains this code:
    font:x-small Georgia,serif;
    I removed the word Georgia and left the size specification as is. (If you wish, you could roll the two statements into one, for more compact code. It would look like this:
    font:x-small "Trebuchet MS", Tahoma, Arial, sans-serif;)
  4. To vary the font size, try changing the size declaration. xx-small will reduce the size; small or medium will increase it. These are relative font sizes, which means that they will scale based on the user's default settings. There are many other ways to specify font size, such as %, ems, and pixels, but we'll save this discussion for another time. (Be careful here: changing font size can lead to overflow problems.)
  5. Save your changes and re-publish your blog.

That's all there is to it. The steps described above will apply the specified typeface globally to your entire blog. If you wish to make the change selectively — to headings or sidebars only, for example — locate the CSS for the element you wish to style and insert the code there instead.

Some Font DOs and DON'Ts

The code snippet above illustrates the recommended way to specify a typeface for the Web. Suggesting alternates allows you to control which typefaces people's computers substitute if they don't have the first font specified among their system fonts.

Using a relative font sizing unit, like the keywords small and x-small shown above, is also recommended since this gives users control. Specifying absolute font sizes — in pixels, for example — deprives users of the ability to change font size, leaving your page not very useful for those with impaired vision or aging eyes.

Font Lingo

For those unfamiliar with typesetting terminology, the terms serif and sans serif derive from Latin, and refer to the presence or absence of the little "feet" you see on each character in a serif typeface such as Georgia or Times. A sans serif typeface lacks these, making for a cleaner look. Sans serif type is often recommended for onscreen viewing. (The embedded screenshot illustrates how this blog looked before this post. You can decide which you like best.)

Hope you found this post useful. If so, please support Random Bytes with a link from your blogroll. Sign up for our feed for more on this topic.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Getting Blogger to Respond to Content Theft

If you were here a week ago, you'll know that I was furious about my blog being copied wholesale — title, description, posts, categories, web badges, even my profile and photograph. The person's motive for this left me bewildered, as the cloned site linked back to me all over the place.

I have since learned that such theft is becoming quite common, usually motivated by an intent to exploit your content for displaying the thief's AdSense ads. But this idiot left my original ad in the duplicate version. He even left my copyright message intact, for pete's sake!

Concerned about being penalized by Google for duplicate domain spam, I responded immediately with a post about the problem. I then began the frustrating process of communicating with Google and Blogger to let them know that the duplicate content was not mine and to request removal of the offending site.

It took a week, and numerous emails back and forth to Blogger, to get the cloned site removed. That process is worth sharing here in case you encounter similar content theft.

The initial response from Blogger was not helpful. I received a terse boilerplate reply informing me that:

Blogger is a provider of content creation tools, not a mediator of that content. We allow our users to create blogs, but we don't make any claims about the content of these pages. In cases where contact information for the author is listed on the page, we recommend working directly with this person to have this information removed or changed.

There was no contact information on the cloned blog other than my own, and no way to reach or communicate with this person. A battery of emails ensued between me and Blogger. Eventually, Blogger responded with an email containing a cryptic clue:

Based on our policies regarding content removal, we are unable to remove the content in question. However, please be aware that your blog has been reviewed, verified, and cleared for regular use so that it will not appear as potential spam.
Aha! Someone has reviewed the situation and given Random Bytes the seal of approval. But who? Blogger? Google? Both of them? Only when I asked why would Blogger not have policies around this type of illicit use and pointed out that this is a clear violation of my copyright, did Blogger respond with helpful information. That email acknowledged that Blogger does indeed have a policy of responding to notices of infringement under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It also outlined, in detail, the process for filing such a notice. You can find the content of that email in this text file.

I followed the steps described in that email a week ago. After one final email entreaty from me, Blogger removed the offending site yesterday. Interesting journey, and encouraging to know that these faceless companies will act when pressed hard enough by their customers.

Lorelle on WordPress has published an excellent series of articles on this topic. For more on how to protect yourself from content theft, visit these links:

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Create Your Own Super Hero

With the six-episode reality television show Who Wants to be a Superhero airing this summer, there's bound to be renewed interest in super beings. Here's an online tool you can use to design your very own Spidey or Wolverine. Hero Machine, from UnderGroundOnline, is a slick little applet that lets you create a superhero from the ground up.

You can choose gender and body type, then select among a wide range of facial features, clothing elements, extra appendages and armament. Once you've designed your hero (or villain), you can colourize him/her, choosing both outline and fill colour from the palette provided. You can see my fierce defender of freedom, nicknamed Randomella, in this post's illustration.

Once you've created your superhero, you can share him/her with others or discuss the finer points of gaming in the UGO forums. Or use your new superhero as an avatar in those online blog directories that require a visual!

For more about super heroes, see this wikipedia article.

Friday, May 05, 2006

CSS Showcase Sites Multiply Like Bunnies

Big surge in traffic last week, thanks to a front page link here from CSS Drive. (Seems someone there found my article about CSS transparency noteworthy.) CSS Drive is one of the Net's many CSS design showcase sites. These sites are worth a visit whether you're seeking inspiration, trying to figure out someone's code, or just endeavouring to keep up with trends in CSS and web design.

These design galleries exist in the zillions — well, OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but several are worthy of your bookmark list. The best-known, of course, and the one that started the trend is Dave Shea's CSS Zen Garden. Others worth a look include CSS Beauty, Unmatched Style, CSS Vault, and StyleGala.

There are new CSS showcase sites almost every day. In fact, the rate at which these sites are proliferating leaves no doubt that CSS has taken the web by storm. We'll keep you posted on noteworthy new additions.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Blog Piracy Alive and Well

My blog has been highjacked! I don't know how or why this has happened, but someone has cloned my blog index page — categories, feed, web badges, and all. Even my photo.

The cloned copy is at http://dtfka2.blogspot.com/ and it's identical to this blog in every way that I can ascertain. I saw this URL in my blog stats this morning. Imagine my shock on checking it out. (Hopefully, this link won't be live by the time you read this.)

I have no idea why someone would do this. I have contacted Blogger, Google, and this jerk's ISP, and await their response(s) with great interest.

The posts all link to this blog. My concern, of course, is that Google will consider this a duplicate domain, and penalize ME!

I'm also bewildered at how this could happen. Has anyone else had this experience? Please let me know. I would also like to know how we can protect ourselves against this kind of thing.