Branding Emotionally

This post is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. See that initial post for a table of contents of all articles in the series.

As I began to talk with Ryan about pursuing a new design for SilverPen Publishing, I lamented the fact that I have never really been satisfied with my website. This has resulted in changing its appearance and sometimes overall organization once or twice a year since I first set it up in 2004. I never quite knew what I wanted, and I’m not capable of designing it anyways, so I just found some pre-fabricated theme, slapped it on, and convinced myself that it’s good enough to use.

Of course, it never was good enough, and because my site’s design has never been how I truly wanted it to be, I have never been satisfied for long. This results in my changing the design after a few short months and, as Ryan pointed out, that prevents my readers from ever establishing a true connection with my site.

This connection, or at least what creates this connection, is referred to as “branding,” and the consideration of the subject is relatively new to me. As a writer, I continually hope that people will read what I write and continue visiting because they liked what they read. That might be the case eventually, but it takes a lot of work to get there.

Everyone knows you can’t judge a book by its cover, but we also know that when we’re strolling down an aisle at Barnes & Noble, it’s the covers and the titles that catch our eyes more than anything. Unless we went in looking for a specific author, and even if we did, we’re often going to browse around and pick something up that is pretty and visually interesting.

The same goes for a website. Something that is visually appealing, well designed, and easy to use is going to attract repeat visitors far more than a plain black and white page. This is even more important when the primary content is text-based; webcomic artists can have a spartan page because their primary content is visually appealing, but writers have no recourse to ocular stimulation beyond the design of their site or the inclusion of a photograph with their article.

Branding is more than having a good design, though. Continuity is important to maintain that connection with your readers. If your site changes on a regular basis, repeat visitors may think they’ve stumbled upon a different site entirely, not realizing that you’re just spastic and can’t settle on something. Especially if they don’t visit often, or are returning months later to find a particular article, maintaining a consistent site design can make all the difference between frustrating and exciting them.

By way of example, I have trouble remembering exactly where something is when I’m reading, so when I return to look for a particular quote or page, my search is a contextual one. I try to locate what I’m looking for based on its relation to other things. This might include how far down a page I recall the quote being, or the series of steps I took to reach a particular article. But if everything looks different visually or has been moved around, there’s a decent chance I’ll never find it. And if I can’t find something the first time, I’ll likely never go back and look again.

As readers become more familiar with a look, they begin to recognize it as indicative of a site. It becomes comfortable and evocative, and the easy recognition of particular elements will allow you to communicate more clearly with your readers. Using the same logo on your site and business cards will help people relate the two and, in turn, relate them to you as a person. Connections are formed in the mind that will help people remember your work more clearly and with greater longevity.

The key is to find a design you really like, that really suits you, and with which you are really comfortable. All three of those are crucial because the second step is to hold onto it. You’ve got to remain steady for a while if you’re going to establish any sort of emotional connection with your readers. Otherwise, the next time they return and you’ve changed everything up on them yet again, there’s a decent chance they’ll surf away, never to return.

Why I don’t care about Facebook changes

I have to admit, I underestimated Facebook at first. As a User Support Specialist at Missouri State University, I was given the opportunity to beta test Facebook before it was released to everyone. You might remember that Facbook was only available to colleges in its infancy, and so the creators wanted to make sure it worked for colleges while at the same time we wanted to make sure we wanted it on our campus.

At that time, you had to have a .edu email address to create an account on Facebook, and the institution in question had to agree to let their students log in (else their email address wouldn’t have been able to create an account). That was all thrown out the window a year or so later when Facebook was opened up to high school students, then business users, then everyone.

I’ve seen every change Facebook has undergone since it was first shown to the public, and I’ve also seen the backlash and subsequent responses of the Facebook team as the community has struggled with a fluid service that is constantly undergoing changes. Every change, no matter how small, elicits an outcry from people who will quit the service if the change isn’t rolled back, followed immediately by a flurry of rumours that Facebook will soon start charging for its use. Everyone freaks out constantly about this free service that has set the bar for a successful social networking site.

And I just don’t care. That isn’t quite as flippant a statement as it seems, because I often wondered why I didn’t care. I’m not in love with Facebook (when we first tested it, I thought it was a rather shallow service and didn’t see the point–I especially disliked how locked down it was, a walled garden of social networking), but I certainly use the service to schedule events and parties, send out announcements to groups, and check in to see how my friends are doing and what they’re up to. So if I use it, why don’t I care? Why haven’t I joined the slavering masses, a’feared that my primary social networking service is going to be destroyed by megalomaniacal despots?

I guess because I never really took ownership of my Facebook page. Similar to my MySpace account, I saw it as complementary to my primary online presence and never came to rely on it. My personal website is my core, and these are just extra services to help me connect with people.

It is the relationships and lines of communication I have established with others that makes these services worthwhile, not their appearance, arrangement, or colours. To that end, Facebook has finally improved their messaging service to make it quick and reliable, it auto-imports my blog entries via RSS, and its group feature is pretty decent. I can find people easily and they can find me. Beyond that, I don’t care.

They can do whatever they want to the home page, the photos, and how the information is displayed on the screen. I generally find their changes to be acceptable and even pleasant down the road, and though I don’t particularly like the current iteration (having status updates be front-and-center like a Twitter feed; I particularly dislike that when I click “notes” on the left, I only see other people’s notes, and getting to my own is more difficult now), my life doesn’t exist on Facebook. My online presence isn’t centered there.

That’s why I made a website to begin with. I was tired of Livejournal and Xanga jerking me around, screwing with my stuff, so I sought out autonomy. If you get all worked up about social networking services jacking with your pages, maybe you need to move your web presence elsewhere. Climb over the wall, take some control back, and quit’cher’bitchin’. You don’t own Facebook and never will, so if you really want to take ownership and make something how you want it to be, go out and do it.

And along those lines, if you’re looking for a designer for your site, I can recommend a top notch one 😉 He’ll make you something beautiful and it’ll be all yours.

Poor Design Stymies Communication

This post is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. See that initial post for a table of contents of all articles in the series.

Students in Creative Writing must become intimately familiar with the workshop process in writing and revising their work. We put something together under a rather intensely short deadline, get it to the teacher who photocopies it for the class, and then our peers read, dissect, and tear apart our work so they can tell us what’s wrong and help us improve.

In my experience, this has been a fairly benign process because most people are afraid to be too critical or in-depth with their comments. If you know me at all, you know that I’m a pretty blunt, straight-forward person, so though I tempered my tone and always made sure to comment on a positive aspect of the piece in question, I didn’t see anything to be gained by coddling someone. If they aren’t told what needs to be fixed, they’ll never improve.

I write this by way of introduction because there was one remark I seemed forced to make on probably half of the poems I have workshopped over the years. Poetry is a particularly ambiguous medium, one where the writer must learn all of the rules and how to conform oneself to them so that the writer can in turn break all of those rules. Strangely enough, if you start off breaking them, your poetry will suck. But if you learn what you’re doing first, you can deviate wisely and write something beautiful. Many of my peers never bothered to read much poetry or learn, though.

The primary goal of poetry, like any writing, art, or design, is to communicate something. An idea, a phrase, something and/or anything… a poem does not exist in a vaccuum. But if it isn’t structured, worded, designed, and written correctly, it will communicate nothing. And what’s worse, if the author doesn’t fully understand what they are trying to communicate, then the piece is worthless. What’s the point of creating a communicative piece when you don’t know what you are trying to communicate?

Just the same, even if you know what you are trying to communicate, if it is not designed correctly your message will be lessened. You might have the greatest idea in the world, but without the proper medium, formatting, and structure, it will either be ignored or lessened. Your impact will be less because the design did not fit the piece.

This is something with which I have been struggling in regards to the design of my web site. There are a great many things I want to do with SilverPen Publishing, but the stock theme I have been using is rather inflexible and it is difficult to cram my ideas into its borders. Looking at the year ahead, I have a number of goals I want to accomplish and several involve publishing different pieces through my website, but its current design would hamper that. I knew that if I went ahead and threw my content into and behind this design, there was a decent chance that the message would be lost.

And yet, I cannot design something wonderful myself. I have enough artistic intelligence to recognize the inherent weakness of my site, but not the skill or vision to create something evocative, communicative, and fitting for the accomplishment of my goals.

Settling is rarely, if ever, an option to me. With poetry, I can do a decent job communicating my heart and message, but I am not the greatest poet and so sometimes (read often) am completely incapable of conveying my meaning. I am perhaps better at communicating through verbal communication, where I can blend diction, volume, speed and pausing, and word choice to design a complex message to reach people’s hearts. Likewise, I am decent at non-poetical writing, and between these three, I know enough to know how to learn and improve if I am not currently able to communicate the message I desire. I can get where I need to go to reach my goals.

But with a website, I cannot. My next article in this series will focus on the recognition that we can’t all do everything, and what we should do when we realize we are incapable of designing what is needed.

WordPress not quite ready for mobile browsing

Instead of redacting this entire entry, I’ll let you know that mobile browsing for WordPress does work now. See my updated article on The Evolutionary Process of Mobile Browsing on WordPress for more details.


One of my design goals for revision 3 of SilverPen Publishing was to make the site more accessible. I’m not a web developer by trade and didn’t really know how to do this, but I knew that I didn’t want to exclude people from visiting my corner of the web. To me, this didn’t just mean making SilverPen more friendly to screen readers and other assistive technology devices, but also to make the site work well on mobile devices.

To this end, I found yet another great plugin by Alex King that queries the user agent of the browser trying to access the site. If it’s a mobile web browser, the plugin serves up a custom template that’s very lightweight and fast to load on mobile devices. It worked very well, but unfortunately it only worked in a vaccuum, and even then had some serious repercussions.

WP Super Cache

First off, it simply does not work with WP Super Cache, and in fact, no mobile browsing solution does. For those who haven’t heard of Super Cache, I’ll explain what it does and why it’s necessary very briefly. Every blog post and page that WordPress serves up is dynamically generated on the fly when you access the site. Putting all the pieces together to make a web page puts a lot of load on the server, and it makes the page load a lot slower for you. Caching allows the server to create static pages, rather than dynamic ones, of the same content and therefore serve it up faster. This reduces load on the server and makes the page load a whole lot fast for you.

Because of how WordPress works, this caching is pretty much vital to running a site on WordPress. My traffic’s not that high yet, but it has more than doubled in the last few months, and I expect it to continue increasing at a similar rate. The last thing I need is Bluehost freezing my site temporarily due to a sudden spike of traffic, so like all good WordPress bloggers, I use WP Super Cache.

To make a long story short, WP Super Cache creates a copy of a page the first time someone visits it. Each subsequent visitor is shown that copy, and this is what breaks WordPress Mobile Edition. Since you’re viewing a static copy of the page that has already been generated, you don’t see the mobile theme, rendering the mobile plugin useless.

If it’s a choice between having the page load more quickly for most everyone and reducing the load on my server vs. having the site more accessible on mobile devices, I’m going to have to go with the former. Especially as data plans move towards 3g and faster mobile browsing.

Search Engine de-Optimization

The second reason that mobile browsing fails for WordPress is because it kills SEO, which harms your ranking in search engines. By its very nature of essentially serving a different set of pages to mobile devices, plugins such at WordPress Mobile Edition fool search engine robots into thinking there’s a second website with duplicate content on it. Such duplicate content is ranked down by search engines, which means your pages are less likely to turn up in searches and you’ll get less traffic.

The mobile plugins and solutions for WordPress all admit that it’ll kill your SEO and recommend you “do something” about it, but don’t offer many solutions. I thought I had found an elegant work-around yesterday in the form of themed multiple domains in WordPress, which would allow me to have multiple domains pointing at a single instance of WordPress, wich each domain triggering its own theme. In this instance, you can easily redirect robots that hit those other domains to a separate robots.txt file, which would tell them “don’t index this site.” For example, if I had silverpenpub.net and m.silverpenpub.net (for mobile browsers), I could have the main site indexed and tell the robots not to index the mobile site.

But I don’t want to register a separate domain for mobile browsers, and I couldn’t get it to work with a subdomain for some reason. Maybe I was doing something wrong there and will figure it out eventually, but it’s not going to happen today.

Not worth my time

In the end, trying to twist WordPress into working on mobile devices doesn’t give a  lot of return for the investment, and I’m beginning to think it will be a non-issue before too long. Even I am beginning to dream nightly of acquiring an iPhone, and browsing with a 3g connection means that, even over a cellular data plan, you can load a site quickly. And newer phones have a lot larger screens, which means that my theme displays fine all on its own.

I know that WordPress now has a iPhone-friendly administrative interface, and I hope that they include more features in the future to help their platform run better on mobile devices. Accessibility is still important to me, but I can’t justify 5-10+ hours of work to make the site more accessible to 0.5% of readers by introducing “features” that degrade or break the site for the other 99.5%.

RoB: Why Have a Website?

Part of me doesn’t want to begin this discussion with what I consider a series of very obvious statements, but it might also be important to begin at the foundation of it all. Therefore, we’ll start with the very basic question of, “Why have a website?”

My first website, for all intents and purposes, was on Geocities and served two purposes. First, it was a conglomeration of links I enjoyed and wanted to share with other people, because I thought that was important at the time. Later, it also became a collection of my poetry.

I put these things up there not just because I wanted to share them, though. In junior high and high school, I was beginning to recognize the significant power of the web and its advantages over my personal computer. Where my computer could die, lose data, etc., most web site hosting companies had backups and redundant power supplies and a variety of other tools to ensure the retention of data. Therefore, if I kept my poetry only on my local hard drive, I was almost guaranteed to lose it someday. If I put it on a web site, I had a better chance of retaining it forever. It also gave me the added benefit of being able to access it from anywhere, so if I needed to print something at school or the library, I had it all out on my website rather than locked away at home.

I have lost some very important files in the past due to corrupted or fried hard drives. Letters from people who are now dead, photos of loved ones I’ll never see again… but now, everything I feel is important goes here, on SilverPen Publishing. The photo gallery contains every photo I’ve taken with my camera in the last few years, though not all of them are visible to you. And I do all of my writing through WordPress, which means that as I write, my words are saved every 60 seconds or so to a remote server, with power redundancy and regular backups, as well as off-site backups in case the main data center ever got struck by a meteor. My data is about as safe as it can be, so I won’t lose anything again.

So, the site is largely a practical thing. On a more personal note, I find that blogging is very helpful and healthy for me on a variety of levels, and for whatever reason, I cannot keep a personal, private journal; I end up never writing in it. Something about this medium compels me to keep writing, journaling, and sharing, and I think it’s because I’m producing work that others will see. I want to share these thoughts, and I’ll discuss more in the coming weeks why I believe that is the case.

I’ve lost my voice

As I spent much of the weekend writing, I discovered that the words weren’t coming naturally. Especially on the more theological posts, I had things to say, but it felt like someone else was saying them. It was rusty and a little cliché, but by the third or fourth entry, the style began to come back to me. It has been so long since I’ve written regularly, I am no longer practiced at it, but I think my voice is going to come back quickly. Thankfully, it’s more like riding a bike than playing a violin.

I spent nearly all day Saturday working on my website, and was very excited when I finally finished it. Most of the blog-side work was done throughout last week, but Saturday saw the final uploads and configuration for the photo gallery, which was a surprisingly frustrating bit of work. There are some weird quirks with the ZenPhoto software, the most baffling of which concerned our wedding album. ZenPhoto uses folders and links case sensitively, so capitalization matters, and since I wanted the titles of the albums to be capitalized, the words in the link would be capitalized as well. That’s fine, and it worked nearly everywhere, except for the word “Wedding,” which was always spelled in lower case in the links for some unknown reason. This meant that some photos within that album were inaccessible and the random image at the top of the gallery wouldn’t work at all if it was attempting to draw from the wedding album.

Even more odd, the word “Weddings” worked just fine, as does my current title, “Much Ado About Weddings.” Once I got that fixed, I had to change the colour scheme, and discovered that the theme I was editing was rather poorly laid out which made colouring certain areas a bit frustrating. Still, it got done, and I’m really happy with the end result.

I’ll be writing about the process of setting up a website like this on my tech blog throughout this week and the next, focusing more on what issues one should consider when beginning a project like this rather than delving into the actual code (since I don’t do much with the code as a general rule, if I can help it). I won’t bore you all with the details, but if you’re interested, just head on over and subscribe 😉