News and views on new and emerging technologies and how they affect businesses today.

What is RankBrain?

What is RankBrain?

RankBrain is now entrenched as part of Google’s search ranking algorithm and is said to be the third most important ranking factor after inbound links and great content. It is having a big effect on how searches are presented.

But what exactly is RankBrain and why should small business owners care?


RankBrain is “artifical intelligence” (AI) applied to search engines.

AI is all about machines learning how to get better at doing things. So RankBrain is software that helps Google to improve it’s search results by learning what worked for a particular user in the past.

Search graph

Back in October 2015 Bloomberg broke the story that Google was using a new system to help deliver search results.

It started out as a way for Google to perform better on the 15% of searches it had never seen before. These are searches that Google was being asked to carry out for the very first time.

The remaining 85% of searches, Google had seen before and could already test which search results were proving popular (being clicked on).

But those pesky 15% of never-before-seen searches were proving difficult for Google to confidently provide results for.

Enter RankBrain

RankBrain aimed to assist by using machine learning to link words together into “vectors” and figure out the relationships between words and word clusters.

For example: Google may have seen the query “what’s the best digital marketing company in London” many times before. But it may never have seen the query “show me top London online marketing firms”.

RankBrain can tell that these queries are similar – that is, the search intent is the same (to find top digital marketing companies based in London).

Here’s a technical post from Google about machine learning in search – very cool.

What’s the state of play today?

RankBrain worked so well for these never-before-seen queries that Google decided to integrate RankBrain into almost all searches.

Signpost

So now Google has a tool which can much better interpret the intent a user search. This understanding of meaning transforms Google from a dumb machine into an intelligent interpreter of meaning.

So where next for small businesses?

I stress that today, RankBrain is just one of hundreds of factors involved in generating search results.

It means that small business need to worry just a little bit less about creating pages which contain the exact keywords and phrases used in search queries. Perhaps instead of creating two pages, you could create one.

It also means that content should be aimed more and more at human readers and less at search engine spiders.

That’s good news for search engine users and for content providers like SMEs.


See also:

 

SEO rankings

Future of SEO

What do the next few years hold for search engine optimisation? Since almost all businesses rely on organic search traffic, it’s vital to understand the direction of travel with search engines and SEO. Here’s my brief analysis of where we are currently heading.

Top ranking factors

There are hundreds of factors which determine where your website sits in the search results, but the top three factors are: on-page content, inbound links and (since fairly recently) inputs from Artificial Intelligence software, such as Google’s RankBrain.

Since on-page content and AI deliver more reliable results than inbound linking (which is easier to falsely manipulate), inbound linking may decline as a ranking factor in future.

Mobile voice assistants

Mobile voice assistants will increase rapidly

Accelerated Mobile Pages

This technology allows search engines such as Google to actually host your content instead of you hosting it. It only supports a small subset of the functionality that “full-featured” web pages do. As a result AMP pages load and display really fast. This is good because pages that are loaded with ads tend to display very slowly on mobile devices.

You provide the content by supplying it on your site in a special format called AMP, then Google will take it automatically and display it direct from Google instead of from your site, and credit you at the bottom of the page. As the user experience is held to be better, these pages will be ranked higher in search.

However, it’s controversial because Google allows you to “swipe right” to another provider’s content instead of staying on your website. And some content providers, including major newspapers, have said that ad revenues from AMPs are lower than than from self-hosted web pages.

Voice and personalisation

Personal assistants such as Google Now, Siri and Cortana are set to grow massively and change the future of search.

Currently, the most popular voice requests are to for travel directions, time and weather updates, dictating text messages, playing music and getting TV and film listings.

But that’s just the tip of of the iceberg.

As these assistants are personal, they will tailor search results according to how you have interacted with them in the past. This bypasses the search engine results pages and goes straight to the relevant content.

In a similar way, smarthome devices such as Google Home and Amazon Echo are bypassing visual interfaces and moving straight to voice interfaces, which requires a “direct to result” approach (perhaps a throwback to Google’s I’m Feeling Lucky – remember that?)

User ExperienceUser experience (UX)

User experience (UX) is another huge factor in upcoming SEO. UX means the quality of the experience a user has when visiting your site. For example, if your site is laid out in a logical, appealing and easy-to-use way, we say it is a good user experience.

On the other hand if your content is bland or weak, badly put together, badly laid-out and unappealing, users won’t stick around because it’s a poor user experience.

Google is wise enough to know that if a website has a great user experience it is probably a better bet to send a user there than to a site with poor UX. Google measures UX in a number of ways. Three easy ways to check your UX is to look at page dwell time – the amount of time a user spends reading your page. Bounce rate – the % of users who hit your site and flounce straight off again, disgusted by the lack of relevance to their search.

New platforms for search

Off-search engine search engines will continue to rise. When we think of search we tend to think of Google’s search bar or search page. But actually the biggest search engines are social networks such as YouTube, Facebook. And social media content has appeared in search results for a long time now.

Google can now index the content inside mobile apps and incorporate this into searches even when the user does not have the app installed. Little wonder, since 84% of time on mobiles in spent in apps, especially social networking and messenger apps such as SnapChat and WhatsApp. What you can do with your apps – especially social networking apps – is set to increase. Facebook now have instant messaging, SnapChat lets you send money to friends via SnapCash.

What to do next

Now what?

For small businesses, this all means three simple things to do right now:

  1. Keep producing great content for your online presence, assisting your existing and new customers in every way possible
  2. Improve the user experience of your website
  3. Consider using Accelerated Mobile Pages

See also

Image credits

Web-to-email forms

Why Do Web-to-Email Contact Forms Stop Working?

Email contact forms on websites are notoriously bad at just … working! They work one day and just suddenly stop working the next. Usually the first you know about it is when you notice that you haven’t had any email enquiries from your website for a while.

Here are some tips on why email contact forms stop working and what to do about it! This is a non-technical article, so you won’t need to be a geek to make use of it.

Read more

Why does my website say "Not Secure"?

Why Does My Website Say “Not Secure”?

https encryption

To remove the “Not Secure” warning from your website, and replace it with the trusted “green padlock”, you need to install an SSL certificate.

Your website will be flagged as “Not Secure” in a web browser if it does not provide any encryption of the data which passes between the website user and the site.

This data could include things like usernames and passwords, data captured in online forms, comments, credit card details, or any other kind of data, including simply requesting web pages from the site. Read more

Add HTTPS to Your Website to Help Search Rankings

Browser toolbar with SSL certificate

In 2014, Google announced that HTTPS would be used as a factor in search rankings

At first, webmasters saw little difference in search rankings and at that time only around 7% of page-one Google results used HTTPS. That figure has climbed dramatically in the intervening two years, and now around 30% of top-level Google websites are using HTTPS.

What is HTTPS?
HTTPS secures web traffic as it passes between the user and the web server. The traffic passes through an encryption process, meaning it is less easy to hack. This is particularly important when the user is sending confidential data such as name and address details or credit card data across the web.

How do I get HTTPS on my website?

To secure your website, you need to install an SSL certificate. This is a document that can be read by your web browser which is signed by an authoritative source, and giving a guarantee that the website belongs to who it claims to be, and ensure that traffic is encrypted as it passes through.

You’ll recognise the presence of an SSL certificate because:

  • The URL of the webpage will begin with https:// rather than http://
  • There will be a padlock icon near to the URL in your web browser
  • In some cases the padlock icon will also display the registered owner of the website

Is there more than one type of SSL certificate?

Yes. There are at least three levels of SSL certificate, and they vary widely in price. Here’s a handy reference guide:

Extended Validation (EV) Organisation Validation (OV) Domain Validation (DV)
Encryption Yes Yes Yes
Level of validation Thorough vetting of the organisation Some vetting of the organisation No company vetting
Right for e-commerce sites
Financial sites
Gaming and betting sites
Online banking
Membership sites
Forums
Social networks
Sites which collect customer data via forms
Static informational sites which collect no data
Price High Medium Low

What else needs to be done apart from installing the certificate?

Whilst your main task is to purchase and install the certificate, you’ll also need to do some housekeeping on your website to keep things working correctly and ensure you don’t lose any search engine rankings.

Firstly you’ll need to ensure that any requests on your site that come into the old http:// version of your site are correctly diverted to the new https:// version. How you do this will depend on the way your website is built. As all of your URLs will change, you need to ensure that the diversion is set up correctly otherwise you will lose search rankings. We can advise on how to do this.

Secondly you’ll need to ensure that all images, fonts, videos and other page elements that are contained in your web pages are also served via https://. Otherwise the padlock icon will appear broken or greyed-out. Again, this is a web development task that we can help with.

How much do SSL certificates cost?

The price will vary according to the strength of the certification. For DV certificates, expect to pay between £40 to £50 per year for your certificate. For EV certificates, expect to pay £150 – £200 per year. Installation costs will be also be required. Why not contact us for a quotation on the cost of adding security to your site?

Get SSL Quotation

BBC News Moves to Responsive Design

BBC News WebsiteToday the BBC has announced that after several weeks of A/B testing it will move all users to it’s new responsive website design.

Responsive design means the same site present itself differently according to the kind of device that it’s being viewed on.

Usually this means having more horizontal content on desktops and on mobiles using bigger text, and fewer or just one column of content, with content stacking up vertically instead of horizontally. This means less pinching and zooming on mobiles, links that are easier to click, and forms that are easier to fill in, while at the same time delivering the rich user experience that desktop users demand.

We’ve been using the responsive design for a few weeks and we like it. It focusses the user on the content not on the presentation, which is Rule #1 of great web design. We didn’t much enjoy being directed to a separate website when viewing the site on mobile, but now we’ll stay on the main bbc.co.uk/news URL.

The BBC news team have said that up to 65% of their traffic is now via mobiles and the old desktop site was built four years ago when the conventional wisdom was to build different sites for different devices. They also have a great mobile app which is specifically designed for mobile and there are no signs that will be withdrawn.

  • Visit the new BBC News website
  • UKcentric build all new websites as responsive as standard.

 

The Challenges of Accessible Website Design

What is website accessibility?
Website accessibility is the process of designing websites which have no barriers to access for people with disabilities. Consideration must be given to blindness and low vision, motor disabilities and the widest range of cognitive abilities.
For most customers, the primary concern in web design is reaching the largest-possible audience. Sadly, accessibility is often the last thing on the customer’s mind, and we have to gently steer the customer towards accessibility considerations.

Recently we had a web design project that turned this on its head. Chris McCausland is a stand-up comedian who is also blind. Our commission was to build a site which would be attractive and professional-looking to his sighted fans, as well as his fanbase of blind people.

We had to design accessibility-first, and this threw up some fascinating challenges. Read more

Integrating Google eCommerce Tracking with WorldPay 2014

Google Analytics WorldPAyAs many developers know there have been issues for a long time integrating Google eCommerce or Google Analytics tracking with WorldPay hosted payment solutions.

The problem arises because both of these tracking systems use JavaScript to read the shopper’s cookies, tracking customers from clicking on an ad in AdWords all the way through payment. This JavaScript must be placed on the merchant’s site in order to read the tracking cookies that Google has placed there.

Unlike other payment providers, (SagePay, PayPal etc), WorldPay do not provide a way to return a customer to the merchant site complete with their payment information. Of course WorldPay supports callbacks, but these callbacks are called from WorldPay, not the customer, and therefore the customer cookies are not available to pass to WorldPay as part of the callback. Instead, WorldPay provide a way for merchants to show custom pages on payment completion via their own servers – but these custom pages are called up from WorldPay and sucked into a WorldPay-delivered page. 

These custom pages cannot currently contain JavaScript due to the risk of Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) attacks. It’s a reasonable security precaution but it stimies the use of Google Tracking codes.

Over the years various solutions have been proposed, including showing an iFrame within your response page. These solutions work for a while but WorldPay always seem to shut them down after some time.

As of the time of writing Google eCommerce tracking is not supported via WorldPay and although they say that new payment pages will be available in Q1 2015 which may support such functionality, we are not holding our breaths! Solution: switch to SagePay!

Case Study: Creating PDFs From ASP.NET Automatically

We completed another interesting project using technologies that we don’t normally use – creating PDFs from ASP.NET.

Our client supplies materials around the world to research institutions. For decades, every year they produced a paper-based catalogue – an impressive heavyweight document – which they send to all their clients and anybody else who wanted one anywhere in the world.

This was a successful marketing strategy and great customer service, but extremely expensive and very time-consuming.

They approached us to find out if we could automate the production of their product catalogue and make it downloadable from their web site. We said “Of course!” Then we had find out how to do that.

PDFs from ASP.NET

Since their web site technology stack includes ASP.NET, C# code, and Microsoft SQL Server, it made sense to source a software library that would easily fit in. We looked at several PDF libraries for ASP.NET and found the  most popular to be iText – but when we received a license quotation from them we realised it would not be financially viable to use this software. In the end we plumped for PDFSharp and MigraDoc.

Getting the data

Once installed, these libraries allow programmers to create PDF documents, add pages, images, paragraphs, tables of data, tables of contents, headers, footers, page numbers – exactly what we wanted.

First we created software classed that would extract the relevant data from the database, using the specified currency – our clients sell in GBP, Euros, US dollars, Japanese Yen and Swiss Francs.

Then we created classes using PDFSharp that would inject the product data in the right format and right currency into the document.

Once that was done, we focussed on building a table of contents.

Tables of Contents

Seemingly simple, the table of contents turned out to be one of the most challenging parts of the project. The client wanted two nested levels of contents – the main material and within that, the form of the material (sheet, rod, wire etc). All these had to linked to the relevant pages in the document, but of course it’s impossible to know which pages those products might appear on. Fortunately PDFSharp provides a way of setting up a bookmark and taking care of the page numbers itself – a very handy feature which makes internal linking easy.

Finishing touches

Finally we added a full-page cover image with the company’s logo, a terms and conditions page and introduction pages. We added headers and footers to the product pages with the company’s logo as a watermark to add polish and panache to the finished product.

Automatically generating the catalogue

The last piece of the project was to get the catalogue to be generated daily in each of the five currencies. To do this we set up a .net page which generates the catalogues and saves to the server’s filesystem, making them available to be linked to for download. We set up a scheduled task to allow this to happen daily at 5am. Finally, we added links to the catalogues from all the relevant points of the web site.

Good outcomes

This automatic system now does away with the heavy, expensive and out-of-date catalogue. Now our client can point their customers to a brand new downloadable catalogue that is produced every day so has the most up-to-date prices. They will save considerable amounts by not having to send the paper-based catalogue around the world. And customers can now download the catalogue in their preferred currency at any time from anywhere in the world.

Visit the client site

Case Study: Geolocation and Automatic Currency Detection

Globe
Photo credit: Kevin M Gill

Our client has a thriving e-commerce site which we built a few years ago. They sell all over the world and accept payments in a number of different currencies. The challenge with this project was to ensure that customers outside the UK were presented with prices displayed in their home currency.

For this we implemented a geolocation lookup using the reliable ip2location service. This takes the user’s IP address and performs a lookup against ip2location’s database, returning the country the customer is in with extremely high levels of accuracy. The service is fast enough to be done on-the-fly without any noticeable slow-down in accessing the site.

Performance – speed is king

Geolocation

The process of identifying the geographical location of a person or device by means of digital information processed via the Internet

Performance in any web application is key, so instead of performing the lookup every time a visitor arrives at the site, we cache the lookups in the database. We first perform a check against the database to find out if we have already done a lookup on the IP address within the last few days. If so, we don’t need to call ip2location for the country, and we retrieve it from the database. This makes things even faster.

Testing

One of the challenges of web development is finding out what your site/pages look like in countries outside the UK. To do this we employed several techniques. We tested using many web proxy services, and also utilised a great service called GeoPeeker to get a view from the USA, Brazil, Singapore, Ireland and several other locations.

Success

Now the service has been launched, so customers around the world are presented with their “home” currency. This is great customer service and is a handy time-saver for customers who no longer have to change their currency from UK pounds to their home currency.