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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Another look at my stats: browser use

Now that my blog has been extant for two months, I thought I'd compare more of the traffic statistics I can glean. Blogger itself provides some basic information (their penchant for only displaying the top 10 entries is starting to bother me), so I've taken a look at the all time breakdown of my visitors' browser choices:

Pageviews by Browsers
480 (49%)
Internet Explorer
170 (17%)
155 (15%)
97 (9%)
49 (5%)
Mobile Safari
19 (1%)
2 (<1%)
2 (<1%)

Overall, this is what Searchengineland says are the latest stats for browser use courtesy of Chitika, who studied North American usage. IE is (still) just holding the majority of all users:

And also from the same article, people who read Searchengineland use these browsers (I'm thinking these numbers represent their global audience, though it wasn't clearly specified):


So, it's safe to say that I have a disproportionately small share of IE users, although that's in comparison to a North American only study. There are surprisingly lower numbers of Chrome users, too. I wonder who the SimplePie users are. And whether I should try to keep the posts mobile-friendly, to cater to the 6% of the readership.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bing tests mixes of paid and organic results on SERPs

I was distressed to read in Searchengineland that Bing is testing something similar to Google's SERP structure, where organic result lists are interrupted by paid entries, or compilations of "emphasized" content, often at the "fold" position (4th or 5th place, roughly halfway down the page).

Distressed, yes, but not surprised - time will tell whether their trial run reveals that users pay attention to the faint labeling that indicates that a listing is an advertisement, but it seems well established already that the Google practice of placing sponsored links at the very top and to the right hand column in SERPs has led to its users learning to largely ignore the right hand area of the page, along with spending less viewing time on the very top of the main body as well. The presence of "search engine provider-preferred" content at the fold position, also means that listings that fall beneath this visual area are only likely to be noticed by visitors researching commercial offerings, if the entries above said fold happen to be from purely informational sources.

My employer happens to use the right hand column of its standard page design (at least for the last few versions thereof) to link to collateral, and quite often its various calls to action. My team has been advocating a movement to instead use the lead or banner image (we tend to call them "hero images" internally) or prominent text link in the main body for at least the primary call to action.

We still need to work on concision (of main body text); perhaps the further reinforcement of the "fold" concept will be an effective incentive to pare down textual content...

Monday, July 25, 2011

Another localization pitfall: slang

I wonder how often product names are vetted by native speakers of languages when considering marketing something in that region. And if they are, how often slang and rhyming words of dubious character are taken into consideration. 

Certainly, when my employer purchased an electric hatchback car earlier this year (as a corporate vehicle that can be reserved for client visits and such), I was bewildered by the wave of snickering that accompanied the announcement of its name, and the ever so slightly aggrieved way the speaker delivered the news. It turns out that the acronym by which it's called closely approximates an Austrian slang word for "stench". In looking at National German, I see there's also another (less similar sounding) slang term, about which I was not told.

Product namers, beware!

Friday, July 22, 2011

I'm literally on the ball sometimes while working.

I was recently re-watching the first season of Frasier, when I was reminded of the misuse of the term "literally". As it turns out, a kindred spirit has conveniently supplied a transcript (and embedded the video excerpt). 

As for my post title, yes: I have something like this, upon which I sit part of the time as I work from my home office:

Metaphorically, however, I would like to think I am almost always on the ball professionally! ;)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How to pronounce Japanese - a simplified primer on its phonemes

It's actually interesting to note that for much of the 20th century, many Japanese organizations like schools and some workplaces did participate in radio calisthenics. Even my Saturday morning language schools had them at the start of each school session.

In any case, a recent meeting with a UK entrepreneur reminded me of another benefit to living on the European continent: my first name is almost never mispronounced any longer. If you wish to impress your Japanese colleagues or clients, I strongly recommend that you remember the following simple rules:
  1. There are only 5 pure vowels in Japanese, which are identical to the Italian vowels: from the way I pronounce (Canadian) English, the sounds are: A as in altruism, E as in elbow, I as in index, O as in olfactory and U as in ulna. The letter y can be seen preceding three of the vowels (ya や, yu ゆ, yo よ); it's always used as the consonant. Note: having received linking permission, here is an audio file from a friend of mine that provides a sample of the five short and five long (extended) Japanese vowels. I find I don't actually say "う" precisely like he does, but you can hear how lengthening the sound doesn't affect anything else about it.
  2. Most hiragana - the phonetic alphabet in Japanese - consist of consonant-vowel pairings. There are also double-consonant-vowel triplets which in hiragana are pairs of regular sized kana and smaller kana (cha, gyo, nya, etc). And finally, we have consonant doublings, where there is phonetic elision (indicated by the presence of "little" placeholder hiragana っ "tsu"), like in gakkou  (がっこう school) which would be technically reflect two kanji, pronounced gaku 学and kou 校when separate: the occurrences of two k- sounds in a row were combined to facilitate pronunciation.
  3.  Further to rule 1, there are no diphthongs in Japanese. By this, I mean that sounds that vowels don't truly slide together, such as "eye" or "boy" in English, "huit" in French, or "Ei" and "Maus" in standard German (cf. the Wikipedia article as linked above). Thus my surname, Takeuchi, should be parsed into four sounds: ta ke u chi, and not pronounced "tak-oo-chi", which has become the (what I find to be a) cringe-worthy slogan (found in the bottom right part of the footer) for an eponymous construction vehicle firm in the UK. Strangely and also encouragingly, the US company pronounces the name fairly well in its video.
  4. Many Westerners complain about the in-between R/L sound that exists in Japanese: conversely, it's been my complaint that Japanese lacks the R and L sounds. The easy way to emulate the in between sound, is to lightly flick the tongue so the tip briefly touches the roof of one's mouth, as if to slightly roll what would otherwise be an L sound. As implied by the first two rules, there are five hiragana that expect this sound: らりるれろ (la li lu le lo).
Armed with the above information, it should be straightforward to correctly sound out some of  the popular Anglicized Japanese lingo, of which there are many:
  • Karaoke (kah-rah-oh-keh) - from kara, empty, and oke, from the English word orchestra. There is no perceptible merging of the ra-o sounds; they should remain monophthongs.
  • Mitsubishi (me-tsoo-bee-shee)
  • Toshiba - In transcribing from kanji, this should be written Toushiba but in Roma-ji is often found with the elongated O instead of o u (Tōshiba, cf. Wikipedia); I would pronounce it, in Canadian English, closest to toh-oo-shee-bah where in casual speech the toh and oo are not quite melded (just almost but not quite) into "toe".
  • Karoushi (kah-roh-oo-shee, again with the rou not pronounced as row, but never fully merging the roh-oo sounds) - business folks might remember that from the 80s - literally "exhaustion-death".
If this helps just one person pronounce Japanese words and proper nouns better, I'll feel quite gratified. :)

Disclaimer: I grew up learning what is closest to the standard dialect (標準語), as both sides of my family had been resident in the greater Tokyo area for some time.

p.s. It has been pointed out on Facebook, that as my audience's dialects vary, my English examples where the Japanese vowels can be approximated can be misleading or inaccurate. That's quite true, just as Japan has a wide variety of dialects, which affect how the supposedly "pure" vowels are rendered.
In my experience, most native speakers who aren't in news broadcasting or on the stage tend to be lax about enunciation, Japanese speech will (somewhat convincingly) mimic diphthongs in daily life, especially when spoken quickly.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Having a "bad language day"

Since childhood, I've found that if I devote a certain amount of concentrated effort thinking in one language, there is a transitory period where trying to speak another language is frustratingly difficult. The worst experience I had of this was a few years ago. After a few weeks of only working, reading and dreaming in English, I bumped into a Japanese faculty member at DCU. I sincerely hope she doesn't remember the incident, as it was painfully humiliating for me: practically no Japanese issued from me at the time, but stubborn pride kept me from switching to English. The fact it was a chance encounter definitely exacerbated the situation, but I was no stranger to this phenomenon.

When I entered the Canadian school system, I'd had practically no prior exposure to English. This meant that for a few years initially, I'd answer questions posed to me at school in Japanese, and at home it would take about an hour before I'd revert to Japanese with my parents. Saturday morning language school was never an issue as I'd had the opportunity to transit to the correct mode over Friday evening.

Much to my vexation, I still have trouble once in a while with speaking in teleconferences, if I'd been silent for too long and especially if I'd been reading or hearing a foreign language. Some mental preparation to speak seems necessary to facilitate the mode shift. I also make the effort to cycle through different language content, although lately I've truly let my French lapse: when first arriving in Vienna my stop words (conjunctions mainly, adpositions too) would instinctively come from the French, even when I attempted to use German - now I'd say the reverse is true. It's clearly time to start reading and watching more content in French. However, I keep second-guessing noun genders in German because my knowledge of French genders often - but not always - contradicts the Deutsch. Furthermore, it doesn't help that my manager alerted me to the fact that in some cases, National and Austrian German have contradictory genders.

Actually, the conflation of French and German in my head stems from my high school experience: in tenth grade, I took my one year of National German from a Hamburgian native who also happened to teach French. Due to scheduling, our classes were held consecutively, in the same classroom and same seating arrangements, with only the textbook switching. Come to think of it, there was one more difference, in terms of teaching methods. Our teacher also took diabolical delight in taking my "Compact" dictionary from Langenscheidt, to select lengthy compound terms for random students to attempt to spell out on the chalkboard. She didn't do this en Français.

The struggle to retain languages whilst acquiring new ones will, of course, be life-long.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Why spelling and grammar matter

I once had a brief conversation with a colleague, after I'd co-founded a "Council for Writing Quality" at a previous workplace. He'd scoffed at my efforts, and I can still remember (and recreate) a steep rise in my blood pressure when he said "But, others can understand [the message] anyway. Who cares if there's the occasional typo?"

It probably behooves me to insert a disclaimer concerning both people with dyslexia or other linguistic learning disorders and non-native speakers at this point, prior to commencing my rant in earnest. I certainly wouldn't exact the same standards for either writing or pronunciation when I'm aware that they're functionally blind, cognitively impaired, or if the language happens to be someone's second, third or fourth tongue. But the above paraphrase originated from someone who was not suffering from any known linguistic impairment and only knew English natively.

Perhaps it's because English was not my first language, but I've given much thought to its morphology and grammar. Since my prior two languages were morphologically more complex (French) and quite utterly foreign in practically every respect (Japanese: script, phonemes, word order, verb inflection), the primary challenge I had with English was its pronunciation (Sault Ste. Marie stands out vividly as a place name that I was laughed at for incorrectly sounding it out, in elementary/primary school).

In any case, here are my reasons for why I believe adhering to basic grammatical rules and orthography, especially in professional context, matters:

  • It's discourteous to ask your audience to cope with poor delivery when the errors are easily correctable. Communication is about conveying signal, and as per my spouse's stance, introducing noise unnecessarily is a sign of lacking consideration for the recipient. I feel this way about "texting spelling" also, and even eschew it in my tweets although many would think contractions are admissible on Twitter.
  • Every piece of writing we produce at work has the likelihood of being forwarded, archived, and/or otherwise widely distributed. This means that if these writings are attributable to you, you're cumulatively establishing a projection of your competence, knowledge, eloquence and meticulousness. Consistent and noticeably blatant typos in your body of writing detract from the image you're creating for yourself. In other words, not bothering to correct obvious errors (in the set of grammatical realm in English, the its/it's, you're/your, and their/there/they're issues jump out at me especially frequently) means you're sabotaging your own career. Particularly important are job application cover letters and resumes since they create first impressions, as demonstrated in the Dilbert (c) used in this post.
Courtesy of Klaus, I'll offer a link to the Top 10 Spelling "Fails" on Facebook.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reminiscences: software documentation

I feel fortunate that I can't identify first-hand with Tina, the long-suffering tech writer in Dilbert. My desire to provide user and administrator manuals for software applications stem back to even before I entered the professional workforce. The motivations, however, didn't stem from any false hopes that there would be any significant audience for said work.

As an undergraduate I eventually ended up majoring in a combination of Technical Communication and what they call Brain & Cognitive Science, which involved neuroscience, psychology and linguistics. I also worked at the university libraries, where I spent one summer cataloguing musical recordings by the various ensembles over several decades (mainly on vinyl). It was the following year, that their adoption of a system from OCLC (I believe it was Connexion, but I could be mistaken) led to an opportunity to create an administrators' concise guide.

When later I arrived at a documentation role, I found that structuring the manuals made the most sense if they included the following sections:

  • Overview (or purposes of the software application)
  • Instructions that were based on use cases, ordered from most to least common
  • Troubleshooting
  • FAQ, including known issues and limitations
  • Index
In creating content to populate these chapters, I'd also generated black box testing use cases that covered installation, configuration, updating (or as Indian English speakers would likely say, updation), uninstallation for administrators, as well as the individual features the application offered to end users.

The discipline involved in condensed but clear writing was cathartic for me, but it's now been a very long time since I have had to practice it. Perhaps those reading my blog would prefer that I do so...

Monday, July 11, 2011

Tips on business email authoring

It occurred to me that next year marks twenty years since I first began to use email. Since then I've registered and deactivated well over a dozen addresses. Now I have ten active ones, most of which filter and forward mails into two inboxes: one business, and one personal.

If I become more adept at tapping - or Swyping - perhaps I'd want to use my smart phone for most personal communiqués. However, I think it will take considerable time before becoming comfortable using "text message orthography" in business contexts, including instant messaging.

This is why I'm not even going to address the basics of formal writing rules such as capitalization, punctuation, and writing out words fully, in the following tips.

  • Use the subject line effectively: differentiate and justify why you're sending the email by summarizing its primary topic clearly. I'd also recommend attempting to be concise at the same time, but it would be somewhat hypocritical of me to do so since my subject lines are often exceedingly lengthy.
  • Choose your recipients with care: this includes using the CC and BCC options in ways that make sense, and certainly not reflexively hitting Reply All to mass mailings.
  • Related to the previous point, make sure you include salient information (and conversely, exclude tangential points or less relevant asides) tailored to the audience of the email. 
  • Try to focus on one main topic per email: for those who sort their messages, categorization becomes complicated and time-consuming when too many disparate subjects are covered in one missive.
  • Avoid placing others in "mail jail" by providing a link to downloadable materials, rather than embedding attachments. This also minimizes the proliferation of files that have gone out of date, if there's a definitive way to access whatever latest version is of interest.
  • Prioritize time spent emailing so that not only your requests but also responses are timed in a way that reflects the urgency of the communication.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Who my readers are (so far)... by country

It should be unsurprising to my readers, that this blog itself has been an experiment in SEO. From its inception (e.g. which service I selected to host it), to its traffic analysis, thus far I've learned a bit and questioned much.

For interests' sake, the all-time visitor breakdown by country (which could be skewed by anyone spoofing their IP, of course) is the following:

United States        
United Kingdom

Some counts make perfect sense: I can trace back the majority of Austrian and Australian visits to people whom I know. In the US, I can thank Mick for being such a faithful reader and commenter, although not all the American traffic is likely to be solely attributable to him. :)

In other countries, however, I'm left with enigmas. There seems to be one prolific French reader, and I'm not sure who the Japanese visitors might be, although I can guess that either my Facebook wall feeds or my inbound link from my other, cobwebby personal blog are the two most likely sources.

I'd like to offer an open invitation for more feedback from any of my mystery readers (preferably in languages I can understand, but I'll rise up to challenges unless they're TLM like Finnish (two level morphology) or in Cyrillic...)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Correlation, Causation and SEO

Much speculation abounds when it comes to reverse engineering which criteria are prioritized in search engine ranking algorithms. In the SEOmoz ranking factors summary from this year, the correlation of higher page ranks to greater Facebook "like" numbers was noted.

As my team lead (co-author of Audience, Relevance and Search - here's its companion blog) and I discussed, it was clear that there was an implication that people were likely to interpret this correlation as causation - that is, cum hoc ergo propter hoc. It's a very easy trap to fall into: thinking that we can rely on a quantifiable factor such as SNS-driven endorsement counts to predict how high up a SERP the page would be likely to be found.

However, if one examines the use case scenario of a "popular" page, here's what I would easily envision happening:

Something that is useful, very entertaining or plain memorable is published. News of its existence begins to virally spread - this used to be mostly via email, but now it's typically via SNS. The backlinks also increase in number from pages with related content, as people wish to share it for various reasons: this used to be copy/pastes in newsgroups. Nowadays, most web pages use designs that will track comments, tweets, diggs and Facebook likes: some fraction of visitors will leave their approval of such content on the page.

So, since SNS metrics are proof of high traffic to a page, it seems likely that pages with many Facebook "like"s would have higher backlink counts and endorsements of the quality of content it provides. It would be those other factors, rather than the "like", tweet or similar sorts of numbers, that are probably resulting in elevated search engine rankings.

This is why using giveaway contests and other artificial means to raise SNS-driven endorsements aren't likely to bump up your SERP ranking.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Response to "Ethics of personalized search" SEOMoz blog post

The Ethical Issues of Personalisation Online asked the following questions, so I thought I'd present my views here:
But, is it reasonable to expect a corporate entity to act for the greater good? Particularly if providing users with a more balanced SERP results in them high-tailing it straight into the warm embrace of the competition? In any case – wasn’t it always this way? Before the internet people consumed news only via whichever media sat comfortably with their own political affiliation. Plus of course, even if a more balanced mix of results are shown, you can’t *make* people click through to read something they don’t want to.
So, what do you think? Should we be afraid of personalisation? Should we push for easier ways to turn it off? Should there be more ‘balanced’ results for certain types of queries? Should I get myself a tin foil hat, cancel my broadband, flush my smartphone and hide under my desk?  
First, while I would imagine a for-profit organization would consider that their brand value could be compromised by being overtly unethical in practice,  I would hope that there would be a corporate mandate to try not to abuse their power even if this weren't a tangible risk to their bottom line. Having said that, my cynicism causes me to not expect businesses to act for "the greater good"; in fact, I'm pleasantly surprised when governments do so.

I used to think a lot about web personalization for my employer's extranet presence, as it was my job to encourage various web masters and content owners to adopt the solutions that were available to them. In my situation, there were country-specific legal complications and with some of our customers, a reluctance to let us enable such features, although they weren't as insidious (in my view) as what search engines could do in this realm.

I'm not enough of a fear-monger to say one ought to be "afraid" of personalization, but would take a more centrist wording and suggest that there should be more widespread awareness of what personalization could mean, and an understanding that search engines exist to be profitable, not to provide a public service.

Whenever I've moved countries, I always asked locals for their analyses on newspapers and TV news programming in terms of their political affiliation - which is quite overt in Europe - or other bias. I try to then view their content objectively to see if my impressions corroborate what I'd heard. Subsequently I tend to seek out perspectives on topics based on the type of skewing in which I'm most interested. I do the same with web content from news providers (e.g. for American coverage, Washington Post and Fox News come to mind), and aggregators whose biases of which I'm more aware (example: Huffington Post is my choice, vs. the news portals for Yahoo, Google or MSN.)

In terms of turning personalization off when performing searches, I would join those who would prefer that it be more apparent when results are being skewed for a given query. But I keep hoping that the general populace would act responsibly when shown information, exercise critical thinking, and verify the alleged sources. Critical thought, and the importance thereof, seems to have become a recurrent topic in this blog... It's never a bad idea to take most content with a grain of proverbial salt: web content is easily edited (particularly susceptible are crowd-sourced resources like Wikipedia) and people - the authors of web content - are fallible since they're human.  Caveat search engine user.

p.s. Happy 4th of July to my American readers!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Initial thoughts on Google+, other SNS

The New York Times covered Google+ recently, as did Reuters: their walk-through is worth a look, and has its funny moments too. Thanks to my MIT affiliation, I was one of the early adopter/invitees for this service, so I've had a day now to peruse its UI (by the time this post is published).

Due to the aforementioned privilege, I was an early user of other Google services. For instance, I've had a Gmail account since summer of 2004, and it wasn't generally available until early 2007. Which is why I can vividly recall how Buzz and Wave flopped (although NYT lists Orkut as another instance of defeat, I understand it's still quite a popular SNS in Brazil). The Buzz functionality is still extant despite what some of my colleagues seemed to think: my tweets are forwarded to it along with my networkedblogs-driven automated blog post summaries. However, my audience on Buzz is 6, despite my Gmail contact list which exceeds 250.

Speaking of SNS, Orkut, Friendster and MySpace were on my radar years before I ended up in my current role. I'd had - and cancelled accounts on all of these. I never bothered to join Bebo despite its popularity in Ireland. Partly due to my North American roots, Facebook is where the majority of my colleagues, former classmates and erstwhile friends have ended up, so I've been keeping abreast of the myriad of UI changes without too much complaint. In Facebook's case, I signed up fairly late in the game, in February of 2007. I'm (still) unable to join the premier Japanese social networking site, Mixi, as I have no cell phone number from Japan.

So, it seems that the niche that Google+ is trying to fill is to focus on subsets of contacts. The interface certainly does facilitate this compartmentalization of one's contact list. I'm hoping that it'll introduce a suggested circles list for those with Gmail contact lists, as in the best case scenario, I would be theoretically deciding where hundreds of people should be added (and they do allow a many to many mapping of contacts to circles).

However, Facebook allows for the sorting of friends into lists, which I've found extremely useful, and thus take advantage of to its fullest extent.  Personally I find Facebook to be no less trustworthy than Google when it comes to handling my personal data, so my implicit (and self-imposed) rule on both sites is to never share anything that could compromise my safety, be it online or otherwise. That covers anything from facts I need for security verification in password retrievals to where I plan to be physically (until post event/vacation.)

The first question I had regarding Plus was "is Google really trying to capitalize on users unwilling to compartmentalize their Facebook presence?" So far, I think their efforts are certainly promising; its ease of use and clean design are enticing.

The next question was: would there be an easy way to transfer photos and videos from a Facebook account into Picasaweb? And even if there were, would I want to? Mobile device uploads are extremely facilitated already via Google+ (particularly via Android app, which is unsurprising given its incestuously close relationship with Google). But as I haven't yet mastered the ability to focus well with my Galaxy S smartphone, the photos and video files that I'd wish to share all reside on Facebook, having accumulated over my years there.

More thoughts and wish lists to follow...

p.s. Happy Canada Day!

About Mayo

My photo

Professional: As "Senior Enterprise SEO Strategist" in IBM's Digital Marketing division, I provide consulting and training services for both internal and external clients. Formerly I was involved in Natural Language Processing, software localization, quality assurance and documentation authoring.
Personal: INTJ Nikkei Nisei ex-patriated Canadian who takes photographs and enjoys Baroque through late Classical music. The G+ page shares some of the "best of" photos.