Saturday, April 26, 2008

Basic Definitions about Web 1.0, Web. 2.0, Web 3.0

"What do people mean when they talk about the Web 2.0?" is a query we receive repeatedly, and probably has as many answers as the number of people out there using the term. However, since talk about the Web 3.0 has surfaced in the last year or so, a whole new level of confusion seems to have set in. In an effort to help people understand the ideas behind buzzwords like Web 2.0 and Web 3.0, let's go through what exactly these terms mean (if anything), and how they apply to your ecommerce business.

I want to make it clear at the start that this article is meant to be a broad definition of the challenges that cause people to think in terms of Web 2.0 and Web 3.0. Since these are buzzwords and not clearly defined terms, think of this as an attempt to provide a bird's-eye view of the ever-changing lay of the land on the web. In an effort to create discreet "versions" of the web that can be compared, I will borrow from the W3C Director Tim Berners-Lee's notion of the read-write web, which is often used as a way of explaining what Web 2.0 means.

The first implementation of the web represents the Web 1.0, which, according to Berners-Lee, could be considered the "read-only web." In other words, the early web allowed us to search for information and read it. There was very little in the way of user interaction or content contribution. However, this is exactly what most website owners wanted: Their goal for a website was to establish an online presence and make their information available to anyone at any time. I like to call this "brick-and-mortar thinking applied to the web," and the web as a whole hasn't moved much beyond this stage yet.

Shopping cart applications, which most ecommerce website owners employ in some shape or form, basically fall under the category of Web 1.0. The overall goal is to present products to potential customers, much as a catalog or a brochure does — only, with a website, you can also provide a method for anyone in the world to purchase products. The web provided a vector for exposure, and removed the geographical restrictions associated with a brick-and-mortar business.

Currently, we are seeing the infancy of the Web 2.0, or the "read-write" web if we stick to Berners-Lee's method of describing it. The newly-introduced ability to contribute content and interact with other web users has dramatically changed the landscape of the web in a short time. It has even more potential that we have yet to see. For example, just look at YouTube and MySpace, which rely on user submissions, and the potenital becomes more clear. The Web 2.0 appears to be a welcome response to a demand by web users that they be more involved in what information is available to them.

Now, it's important to realize that there are a staggering number of definitions of what constitutes a "Web 2.0 application." For example, the perception exists that just because a website is built using a certain technology (like Ruby on Rails), or because it employs Ajax in its interface, it is a Web 2.0 application. From the general, bird's-eye view we are taking, this is not the case; our definition simply requires that users be able to interact with one another or contribute content. Developers, for example, have a much more rigid definition of Web 2.0 than average web users, and this can lead to confusion.

This in turn leads us to the rumblings and mumblings we have begun to hear about Web 3.0, which seems to provide us with a guarantee that vague web-versioning nomenclature is here to stay. By extending Tim Berners-Lee's explanations, the Web 3.0 would be something akin to a "read-write-execute" web. However, this is difficult to envision in its abstract form, so let's take a look at two things I predict will form the basis of the Web 3.0 — semantic markup and web services.

Semantic markup refers to the communication gap between human web users and computerized applications. One of the largest organizational challenges of presenting information on the web is that web applications aren't able to provide context to data, and, therefore, can't really understand what is relevant and what is not. Through the use of some sort of semantic markup, or data interchange formats, data could be put in a form not only accessible to humans via natural language, but able to be understood and interpreted by software applications as well.

While it is still evolving, this notion — formatting data to be understood by software agents — leads to the "execute" portion of our definition, and provides a way to discuss web services.

A web service is a software system designed to support computer-to-computer interaction over the Internet. Web services are not new and usually take the form of an Application Programming Interface (API). The popular photography-sharing website Flickr provides a web service whereby developers can programmatically interface with Flickr to search for images. Currently, thousands of web services are available. However, in the context of Web 3.0, they take center stage. By combining a semantic markup and web services, the Web 3.0 promises the potential for applications that can speak to each other directly, and for broader searches for information through simpler interfaces.

What's important to understand, I think, is that the nomenclature with which we describe these differing philosophies should not be taken too seriously. Just because a website does not employ Web 2.0 features does not make it obsolete. After all, a small ecommerce website trying to sell niche products may not have any business need for users to submit content or to be able to interact with each other.


Web 3.0 and History of Web 3.0

Web 3.0 is a term, which definition is not confirmed or defined so far as several experts have given several meaning, which do not match to each other, but sometimes it is referred to as a Semantic Web. In the context of Semantic Web, Web 3.0 is an evolving extension of the World Wide Web in which web content can be expressed not only in natural language, but also in a form that can be understood, interpreted and used by software agents, thus permitting them to find, share and integrate information more easily.

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of first World Wide Web has coined the term Semantic Web. But the concept of Web 3.0, first entered among the public in 2001, when a story appeared in scientific article written by American Coauthored Berners-Lee that described this term as a place where machines can read Web pages as much as humans read them e.g. web connected bathroom mirrors, which can read the news coming through on the web.

Definitions and Roadmap

There are several definitions of the web, but usually Web 3.0 is defined as a term, which has been coined with different meanings to describe the evolution of web usage and interaction among the several separate paths. These include transforming the Web into a database, a move towards making content accessible by multiple non-browser applications, the leveraging of artificial intelligence technologies, the Semantic web, or the Geospatial Web.

According to Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, “Web 3.0 is a third generation of Internet based Web services, which emphasize machine-facilitated understanding of information in order to provide a more productive and intuitive user experience.”. The third generation of Internet services is collectively consists of semantic web, microformats, natural language search, data-mining, machine learning, recommendation agents that is known as Artificial Intelligence technologies or Intelligent Web.

According to some experts, “Web 3.0 is characterized and fueled by the successful marriage of artificial intelligence and the web”. While some experts have summarized the definition defining as “Web 3.0 is the next step in the progression of the tubes that are the Internets”.

According to Nova Spivack, the CEO of Radar Networks, one of the leading voices of this new-age Internet, "Web 3.0 is a set of standards that turns the Web into one big database."

Steve, a famous Blog author has defined the term Web 3.0 as, “ Web 3.0 is highly specialized information structures, moderated by a group of personality, validated by the community, and put into context with the inclusion of meta-data through widgets”.

While Leiki, the Finland based pioneer company of Semantic Web describes: “Web 3.0 makes the discovery of content streams effortless. It introduces automatic discovery of like-minded users and automatic tagging.”

History of Web 3.0
The term ‘Web 3.0’ was first coined by John Markoff of the New York Times in 2006, while it first appeared prominently in early 2006 in a Blog article written by Jeffrey Zeldman in the “Critical of Web 2.0 and associated technologies such as Ajax”.

The debate originates in summit named Technet Summit in November 2006, in which various software tycoons expressed their views. e.g.

Jerry Yang, founder and Chief of Yahoo, stated:

“ Web 2.0 is well documented and talked about. The power of the Net reached a critical mass, with capabilities that can be done on a network level. We are also seeing richer devices over last four years and richer ways of interacting with the network, not only in hardware like game consoles and mobile devices, but also in the software layer. You don't have to be a computer scientist to create a program. We are seeing that manifest in Web 2.0 and 3.0 will be a great extension of that, a true communal medium…the distinction between professional, semi-professional and consumers will get blurred, creating a network effect of business and applications. ” —Jerry Yang

While Reed Hastings, the founder and CEO of Netflix, stated a simpler formula for defining the phases of the Web in the same Technet Summit: “ Web 1.0 was dial-up, 50K average bandwidth, Web 2.0 is an average 1 megabit of bandwidth and Web 3.0 will be 10 megabits of bandwidth all the time, which will be the full video Web, and that will feel like Web 3.0.” —Reed Hastings

Before this people were very curious about ‘Web 3.0’ as they asked to Tim Berener about the full-fledged information of Web 3.0 as Tim Berners-Lee stated in May 2006:

“People keep asking what Web 3.0 is. I think maybe when you've got an overlay of scalable vector graphics - everything rippling and folding and looking misty - on Web 2.0 and access to a semantic Web integrated across a huge space of data, you'll have access to an unbelievable data resource.”—Tim Berners-Lee, A 'more revolutionary' Web

The term Web 3.0 has became a subject of interest and debate since late 2006 to till date. But no exact definition has been created that everyone accepts it.


Saturday, April 19, 2008

website Usability Problems

The majority of Web sites have usability problems, which can result in confusing users, and ultimately, loss of revenue.

The next few sections highlight some of the problems that users can encounter on a site with usability problems, which ultimately lead to confusion and lost revenue:

User Has Difficulty in Finding What They Are Looking For

One of biggest signs that your site has usability problems is that users struggle to find the information they're looking for.

You might find that:

* you're not getting as many enquiries as you think you should be
* your recent redesign resulted in sales toppling
* while visitors make plenty of searches, few follow through with the results

These situations usually occur when users have to struggle to use your site. And sadly, this is one of the most common problems that Internet users encounter.

Logically, the larger your site, the more difficult it will be to find something within it. But more commonly, a poorly structured navigation system, poorly worded links and ineffective site search engines contribute to this common usability problem.

Make sure you provide lots of assistance and visual cues to help your users find what they are looking for.

For example:

* Site search engine that includes a description, in addition to the page title, of each returned link
* An optional advanced search system
* Site map
* Alphabetical index
* Prominent display of popular content above-the-fold on the home page
* A customized "404 - File not found" error page which helps users try to find an alternative to the page that is missing.

The Concept is Unclear

New users to your site will quickly look for visual and verbal cues to work out what your site is about. Common missing visual cues include a logo, title, brief description of the site, and the benefits of using the site.

Try to look at your home page as if you've never seen it before. Where do your eyes drift first? What are you looking for? Ask yourself if, as a new user, you would you be able to work out what the site is about.

However, don't spend too long thinking about it. Try to come up with your initial conclusions in just a few seconds, as that's as much time as you are likely to have to sell your site to your new site visitors.

You can also use your family, friends and work colleagues to help you. These are all people that you know and trust, but who will not be as familiar with your site as you. If they can't work out what your site is about, then your site is at fault, not them. Remember that!

User Misunderstands What They See

Often what designers think and what users think are quite different.

For example, one site had a link called, "Glossary" that linked to a glossary of keywords.

Few users clicked on it. Why?

Usability testing revealed why. A lot of their users weren't sure what a "glossary" was, so they were hesitant in clicking on the link. When they changed the word "Glossary" to "Dictionary", a great deal more users used the link, since nearly everyone knows what a dictionary is.

Confusion has arisen in e-commerce situations too. Several high-profile sites decided that instead of a 'shopping cart', they would have a 'basket' or a 'product trolley'. Ultimately, the conclusion was that if you stick to what users are already familiar with, even if it is wrong, you will have more success.

Page Has Too Much Noise

Some Web pages are so busy and cluttered that it can be extremely easy for users to miss the link or feature that they are looking for.

There are two overall solutions:

* Reduce the Noise Level of the Page
• Remove, or tone down, background images
• Use fewer and dimmer colors (a common method is to stick with 2 main colors per page)
• Trim down the content on the page
• Increase the 'white space' between text and images
• Reduce the amount of movement on the page, such as animated banners and buttons
• Use only 2 or 3 main fonts on a page. One for headings, one for the main text, and another one to attract attention where necessary

* Increase the Prominence of the Important Items
• Move the item to a more visible position, such as the top of the page
• Add images to the item to attract the user's attention
• Add, or increase the font size of the, headline or title
• Increase the text size
• Change the text color
• Change the background color of the item
• Separate the item from the rest of the content. For example, surround the item with a box
• Create movement in the item by using animation - but only if animation adds value to the item

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Future-Proof Your Web Site Design by Planning Your CSS In Advance

A web site is like a building. Over time it gets lived in.

And, regardless of the initial intentions of the designer for how everything within it should be arranged, things get moved around, stuff gets added, some things get taken away, more stuff gets added, the occasional renovation takes place, and yet more stuff gets added.

Many web sites are not really designed to be 'lived in' — i.e. to support all these changes by different owners with various intentions. After a while they bear little resemblance to any sort of coherent design and are likely to become increasingly hard to manage.

Of course, it's impossible to plan for all the 'home improvements' that will happen to a web site between major redesigns.

However, it is possible to be prepared so that the addition of something new to a page doesn't break its design.

A good way to future-proof a web site is to create styles in advance for the most common page elements, even if they are not yet being used. This is called 'planning ahead' ;-) and is an activity often overlooked by web designers.

Using the 'planning ahead' method, if a content author wants to add something to a page — say, a definition list — you've already planned how it will look so that it fits within the overall page design and will coexist with the other elements that may be present.

Let's take a look at the more common page elements a future-proofed site should plan for.

Even though you may only be using H1s and H2s, it's worth creating styles for H1 down to H4.

I'd question whether you need to go further than that (perhaps just make H4, H5 and H6 look the same). If a content author feels the need to use heading levels all the way down to H5 or H6 the structure of their content may be in question.

You might also want to create a style for a byline or a page summary as it's not uncommon for these to be used below the main page heading.

Lists can be quite tricky from a layout perspective, especially when you take cross-browser display issues into account.

Therefore, it's essential to plan for different implementations of lists in advance.

Of course, you'll create styles for the standard ordered and unordered list. But, what about nested lists? I would at least plan for the following variations:

* Unordered list with a nested unordered list
* Unordered list with a nested ordered list
* Ordered list with a nested ordered list
* Ordered list with a nested unordered list

I wouldn't worry about more than one level of nesting. If the content requires this, from a web readability standpoint it should more than likely be rewritten.

Definition lists are a great way to display lists of resources. You'll often have a link to a resource (such as a PDF) and a summary sentence below it. Take the time to set this style up and you'll stop users from littering your 'resources' pages with

Web pages often start with a list of jump links to the various sections on the page. It's worth considering a style for this type of link list, to visually separate it from the regular content on the page.

A list of links with thumbnails plus a summary is quite a popular approach for gallery pages, so you may want to create such a style in advance.

Tables can be very time-consuming to build and style. However, with a little forethought at least the styling part can be made easier.

Be sure to plan for types of data other than numerical that tables can contain — such as text and images.

Here are the common table elements that you should consider:

* Table headings along the top row
* Table headings along the top row and left column
* Table cell containing text (multiple paragraphs) / list / image
* Caption
* Footnotes

It's also worth adding in advance any table-related functionality (often JavaScript-based) that you will likely be using. This can include:

* Displaying table row backgrounds in alternating colors
* Highlighting the row and/or column being moused over
* Sorting a table by a column

If you're managing a corporate web site it's a good idea to also think about financial data such as that in an annual report might be displayed.

There aren't too many variations on how images are placed within content, so they're pretty easy to plan for. Try incorporating options for the following:

* Image floated to the left or right
* Image with a caption
* Image with a caption that contains a link
* Image that is a link
* Image that displays a larger version on being clicked
* Multi-image slideshow
* Image with a photography credit


As well as the standard link states, consider whether links to external sites and to downloadable files should be treated differently (i.e. indicating the target of the link).

It may also be worth planning for how to style an A to Z index.

It's impossible to plan for all the layout complexities that forms can require.

However, do plan for all the standard form elements — for example, that are present in a registration form — as well as how error messages will be presented.

I'm no JavaScript expert, but I do know that it's often a good idea to choose a JavaScript library upfront rather than cherry pick individual scripts and hope they all work well together.

Doing this will help you to avoid functionality clashes and bloat that can come from using scripts from a variety of sources. I've used jQuery in the past, which is well established and has a good selection of plugins.
Pull Quotes

Pull quotes are a great way to call out important information or lines from quotations. I'd highly recommend creating styles for these common pull quote variants:

* Floated to the left and right
* Within a paragraph and at the start of a paragraph
* Without a citation
* With a citation

Other Things to Consider

If you're not already using Flash, plan for how you will embed it into your site. Also, consider creating styles for displaying sidebar content such as boxes of related links or featured resources.

Don't forget to create a print style sheet and maybe even a mobile style sheet (and remember to keep them updated).
How Does Everything Fit Together?

Lastly, it's important to test the interaction of different combinations of page elements.

It's simple enough to separate headings and paragraphs appropriately. But what about a heading followed by a table? Or, a heading preceded by a list? Or an H2 followed by an H3?

The same is true for other page elements — for example, lists followed by tables.

It's worth taking the time to try out these different page layouts (including the more unlikely ones) to make sure that your spacing is set up correctly.

It's much easier to do this in advance than to incrementally tweak your CSS as content gets moved around and added.


A Good Meta Description is Hard to Find

When I look over a web site from a professional standpoint, I'm primarily concerned about three things — the user experience, the aesthetic design, and how well the site is optimized for search engines.

Of the three, I'm regularly surprised at how little attention is paid to SEO, especially the basics.

Everyone knows that the tag is the most important element on a web page for SEO, right?

But what of the meta description, which provides the text summary for each result (the snippet)? It's far more important than many web designers seem to think.

Certainly, the tag, as it forms the clickable link for a search engine result, is key to get right.

However, the snippet provides an opportunity to deliver a targeted call-to-action to the searcher that supports and builds on the text of the main link. It can also differentiate your result from those around it.

Not writing a good meta description — one that at least summarizes the content on the page — means that you're giving up free traffic from organic search engine rankings.

What's all the more surprising to me is that many notable web design-related sites ignore or incorrectly implement the meta description.

For example, the latest A List Apart article (on findability — the irony) has no meta description, even though a summary is provided on the page (although it makes the mistake of being clever rather than useful).

The same is true for Vitamin, Freelance Switch, Graphic Define Magazine, and Boxes and Arrows.

What is especially interesting to me is that these sites are all magazine-format and probably receive a significant proportion of their traffic from search engines. You'd think that they would want to optimize their articles for these important sources of traffic.

Fortunately, SitePoint bucks the trend by actually using meta descriptions, and descriptive ones at that, although they tend to be rather long winded.

Just to drive the point home, here's how that ALA article on Findability looks on Google:

A List Apart Google search engine result: before rewriting

Other than the A List Apart name, a searcher has no idea whether this article is going to be relevant or useful.

Here's how that result looks after spending a couple of minutes rewriting the meta description (based on a more relevant sentence I pulled from the article):

A List Apart Google search engine result: after rewriting

Imagine how good that call-to-action could be if you spent a whole 5 minutes writing and copy editing it. Hopefully I've made my point.

A lot of the business of creating and managing web sites is about getting the basics right. The meta description is one of those basics that you can't afford to ignore.


Monday, April 14, 2008

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