5 essential books for geeks…

Having seen some recommendations for what Wired considered the essential books for any geek, and found it a bit esoteric in recommending the original Dungeons & Dragons manual, for example, I thought I’d recommend the five books I have read, owned, re-read and recommended on numerous occasions as the core of my own geek libary. It’s not a definitive list, as I’m sure there are some great books I’ve yet to read, and it’s not focused on marketing, because that requires it’s own list.

So if someone was intending to spend a while on a desert island and wanted to be a fully certified geek by the time they got back, what would I recommend?

 

The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier by Bruce Sterling:

Originally published in 1992, Bruce Sterling does an amazing job of explaining the roots of how hacking became a target of law enforcement and media scare stories, in addition to describing the various groups involved, from hackers to law enforcement and civil libertarians.
And whilst the names and people involved may have changed in the last 20 years, it’s still relevant – the motivations and aims of each group continue to this day. By that, I don’t mean that all hackers are working towards some kind of common vision, but that there are certain traits and motivations which are shared by a signficant proportion. And a study of hacking forums released just last week backs that up.

 

Code 2.0 by Lawrence Lessig:

If you’re not taking an active role in the political and legal threats to the internet as it is today, or at least considering them and their implications, then you really, really, really need to read this book to understand that the ‘free’ internet as we consider it exists only because of the underlying code, and that can be changed, manipulated and controlled by govering interests, including Governments in particular.

 

Neuromancer and/or Pattern Recognition by William Gibson:

Picking the first major novel by the creator of cyberpunk isn’t exactly a radical suggestion, but when it comes to weaving fascinating stories with a technology thread, there are few equals. However, if the thought of science fiction, or the memory of Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic put you off, then it’s definitely worth trying Pattern Recognition, which is set in the modern day with a suspence/thriller approach. You’ll barely spot the references to technology as it’s as integrated to the story as it is to many of our lives now. And one of the other works I love by William Gibson was his collaboration on ‘The Difference Engine’, with Bruce Sterling. Yep, the one I first recommended.

 

Makers or Little Brother by Cory Doctorow:

Again we’re venturing into science fiction territory, but the best recommendation comes from my own family. After 10 years of playing with websites, it was reading Cory Doctorow that prompted my father to say that he finally understood why I kept going on about the web, social networks, 3D printing etc.

In the Gibson vein, both are strong stories which happen to have technology woven into them, and Makers is particularly relevant given the current economic situation, and my own predictions about 3D Printing. Little Brother is more accessible, and don’t be put off by anything that comes with a ‘teen’ label. Sometimes we forget how intelligent teenagers actually are, but Doctorow hasn’t.

 

Web Analytics an Hour a Day by Avinash Kaushik

The most practical and business-led recommendation isn’t exactly a hands-on guide to analytics product, despite the title. It’s actually a supremely good introduction to analytical thinking in general for businesses and websites, and then outlining the various useful metrics and methods to actually achieve progress, rather than just churning out pointless numbers for the sake of it. Google Analytics is used as the standard example for everything, but considering the fact it’s pretty much the default option as a free tool, that’s no bad thing, and all the information is transferable to whatever analytics package you prefer, but it means you can work directly on your own test site without spending any cash, for example. And it comes with a handy CD full of videos, podcasts and other info. So when the other books have inspired you to do something, now you’ll now whether that something is being successful or not.

 

And if you want to find out more without paying any money, then there’s

So those are my five (OK, stricly seven) books which form the core of my own geek library. They’re the ones I’d immediately replace if lost.

And while I could go on to recommend so many other great books, I’d rather read your recommendations for the must have geek books you love – so do leave a comment, as it’s not just me that will benefit…

The best way to publish RSS feeds to Twitter?

If you’re looking to publish any RSS feeds to a Twitter account, then apparently you wouldn’t be alone in picking Twitterfeed, as it’s apparently used by nearly 350,000 publishers.

Twitterfeed

Not only was it around the first default choice, but there are a host of changes now going live to improve the service.

If you publish on a system that offers PubSubHubbub feeds (e.g. Blogger or Typepad), your new posts should be live on Twitter in a matter of moments.

It now also features the option to publish to Facebook, which makes life a little easier.

And you get better analytics – there’s now integration with both url shortner Bit.ly, and Google Analytics.

And behind the scenes there’s an improved queue management system for greater reliability.

In fact, my only complain from a personal note is that the new design and system gives a variety of methods to log-in, and for some reason I’m struggling with mine!

When numbers become meaningless and dangerous

I’ve just been looking at the latest stats from comScore (Via Techcrunch), and the statistics for Facebook‘s arrival as the fourth biggest site in the world illustrated for me why site stats can become both meaningless and rather dangerous.

For starters, the numbers of the top sites are so big that we don’t really have any way of guaging them – as Eddie Izzard explains using the examples of mass murder (some NSFW swearing).

But the big problem with numbers like these is that they can become very dangerous, due to the tendency for people to quote them as law, and rely on them:

Venus Blindfolded by Gastev on Flickr (CC Licence)

Venus Blindfolded by Gastev on Flickr (CC Licence)

Reasons to worry:

  • Monitoring services like comScore and Compete can only track online traffic to domains – no clients and no apps. A particular problem at the moment for Twitter, but growing for all sites.
  • A certain percentage of users are always unquantifiable thanks to cookie deletion etc, or end up showing up different times on different computers
  • In the comScore example, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo sites are bundled up into their respective companies, so you can’t tell what comes from Google Search and what comes from Orkut or Google Maps.
  • No accounting for OpenID, Facebook Connect etc.

But essentially, the big risk is:

  • Unless you’re one of the top 20 or so sites, the total number of users of Facebook, Myspace, Bebo etc won’t matter much – you’ll still be able to get 1000, 10,000 or 100,000 fans/friends. What really matters is what you want to achieve, the relevancy of the network, and how you work at building valuable relationships rather than numbers.
  • And rather than numbers, look at the interactions, or for the business minded, how many people actually buy something…

But on the bright side:

Besides the fact we can accept social networking reaches almost as far as the internet with Facebook getting 340 million uniques per year, the fact that Wikimedia Foundations sites clock in right behidn it at 303 million uniques also shows the undeniable value of crowdsourcing user generated input if it’s done relatively well.

And maybe the combination of my three blogs will crack the top 10 next year!

The Measures of Engagement meme (Convincing the disconnected)

Another week, another meme! And it’s another one that not only has some real value, but it also bloody tricky to answer in a way that’s not rehashing the work of other intelligent people looking at social media. Dave Cushman started it off as Measures of Engagement – convincing the disconnected, and I think it’s important to keep the second part of the title in mind. As Cush says, if you’re blogging, tweeting, and building your own widgets already, you get it – but there are millions out there that don’t, and if you want companies etc to get involved in the right way, it’s down to us to show some leadership and go outside the comfort zone of the social media echo chamber.

I disagree slightly with Cush when he says those that get social media don’t require the numbers. Case in point – the Adage Power 150, Google analytics, Feedburner stats, Twitter follower counters and all the other things we adorn blogs with. The lack of yardsticks is one problem that currently affects social media usage within businesses, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m a keen supporter of MeasurementCamp‘s proactive focus on sharing case studies and numbers. It’s fine to quote Zappos and WillItBlend ad infinitum, (and I have), but the more relevant and close to your market you can find examples, the more useful it is in convincing the disconnected. And sometimes that’s the approach you need to take, because not every manager is just waiting for you to persuade them onto Twitter or Facebook.

So measurement is a given:

The next stage is to look at what the end result should be. Is it sales conversions or advertising clickthroughs? Are your conversion mechanisms on your website, or are they affiliated via widgets?

Either way, there are two things that work across traditional and new businesses – conversions and the numbers of them.

This is where the battle begins. Social media is an emerging and labour intensive skill. It’s unlikely to drive the same numbers as an SEO campaign, unless you’re really lucky/gaming the likes of Digg.

So what we need is to start tracing the steps of the engaged and the disengaged, and be able to compare the conversion rates – that’s pretty good evidence of the power of social media (If it works…humans have a horrible habit of doing the exact opposite of what you want, at the worst possible moments!).

And controversially, that begins with the traditional web analytics package, whether that’s Google, or a paid service like Webtrends.

That’s something that’s easy to forget in the rush to start driving traffic to the site, and worrying about sentiment. If you’re already using search traffic for relevant keywords to drive conversions, you’ve already got an effective way of getting large numbers of interested people.

So does social media make your boss money?

So you need to be able to show where social media efforts site between someone accidently browsing round your site because they’re bored, and those coming because they want to buy something that minute. And where in the process social media can enhance the conversions for people arriving via search – is it product reviews, or a Q and A section, or customer service?

Why do we want users chatting?

And if you’re relying on click-throughs, you’ve got more impetus for social media. After all, if people are arriving for content rather than purchases, then it’s down to the content, and the strength of your brand and values to convince them that clicking on a third party will give them what they’re after. If I see a shoddy site, unrelated adverts, and no community or loyalty, then I’m going to distrust that banner stuck in the right hand column and leave for somewhere else before I can be tempted into clicking on anything. That’s where the ‘onsite engagement’ is important.

Isn’t a Facebook fan page a waste of time?

And then it’s onto ‘external engagement’. That’s the bit where you make yourselves available whereever an interested person might be, and do the utmost to serve their needs, in the hope they’ll get to know you and your brand and value it over your competitors. And the basis for this comes from the stats showing how social media efforts increase conversions, and clickthroughs from the first two.

So why bother with trying to get numbers?

If SEO is hugely effective for people finding stuff, and when they arrive they’re engaged and converted, then why bother with the outreach?

Firstly, depending on traffic levels, and the advertising model you use, a traffic boost from a social network (the second biggest source of traffic after search engines) can really drive a particular promotion or great piece of content. And if you can show engagement delivers a high percentage of conversions and a big traffic boost, then you’re really set.

Secondly, not everyone is using search any more. I can’t remember the last time I actively searched for a product review before making a purchase. I still read reviews, but I start by asking my network for people with relevant knowledge that I trust, and then follow their recommendations to extra content.

If you’re not getting recommended, you’re going to be paying more to get search traffic, and you’re not getting the recommendation traffic. Effectively you’re trying to run a marathon with your eyes shut and your fingers in your ears. It’s still possible to win, but it’s going to get pretty tough!

This is the bit where the new tools come in.

You can start monitoring terms via Google news alerts (And almost every social media person has a personal vanity search set-up I’ll wager!). That can get pretty time consuming pretty quickly, which is where buzz monitoring comes in, e.g. Radian6, Brandwatch, Onalytica, Nielsen etc (apologies for anyone I’ve missed). These tools provide various ways for aggregating and managing all the mentions of your brand across the internet. The one downside of having a variety of useful tools is that it prevents some of the useful comparisons – e.g. sentiment between brands using different programmes – but I’d expect the market to slowly coalesce as social media matures…

This is also where you hook into available APIs, and allow people to promote your content on the social aggregators.

And that’s about where I’ve got to!

(I should say in my defence, this has been a bit of a stream of conscious post due to upset babies, meowing cats and other distractions, so I’m really interested in as many comments as possible to help distill the right parts out of this..)

Now the more fun bit…tagging some people who will probably struggle less with this than I did at the start of my social media journey within a large media company.

If it’s measurement, then I have to tag Katie Paine, without any implied buzz monitoring favouritism I haven’t chatted to Giles for a while. I’ll also tag Ste Davies, Luke for a personal brand approach,  and Chris because he normally likes to get all argumentative.

Edit: I was going to tag benrmatthews but there was some blog address confusion, which has now been resolved…So he’s back on the list!

Back on the Google map…

I didn’t get as much time to blog over the weekend as I planned, due to a child with the sniffles. But in the background, my Google Page Rank has returned!

And I did at least manage to find out why Google Analytics wasn’t working for the last couple of weeks. It appears trying to add an advertising widget caused an error for some reason, and removing it was the only option.

So that’s two Google related problems sorted. Now I just need the time to upgrade to WordPress 2.6!

It’s been a long – and wet – weekend

It’s amazing how blogging guilt can motivate a post at 10.40pm on a Monday night, but I’ve been a bit lacklustre. Mainly because I had a great weekend hanging out with my baby son, playing a little Xbox 360 (Rainbow 6: Vegas 2 is still my game of choice), and generally staying off the laptop as I’d originally planned to start rebuilding my car. But as the rains came down, the only choice was to hang out in the dry – which I duly did.

Getting back online, I was reminded how much I actually enjoyed this blog in the gap between starting to write on this new url, and finally setting up Google Analytics. Because I had no way to tell if anyone was reading – except for the occasional comment – I suddenly started relaxing and writing for myself again. No pressure to hit keywords, or make sure I updated regularly, or to increase my audience. Hopefully I can carry on in that vein, despite my foolish registrations on Technorati, Feedburner, and even the Adage Power 150, to put myself up against a large number of quality blogs.

Related to that is my reaction to the news my colleague and friend David Cushman has started regularly contributing to Stowe Boyd’s /Message. In the old days, I’d have probably felt a bit jealous if someone got picked up by a bigger print publication. But now it’s a lot easier to be magnanimous – mainly because any link from either of the two blogs now helps me far more than before!

In all seriousness, the nature and power of an increased network means that building, maintaining and valuing the success of friends, colleagues and peers suddenly becomes a lot more important than cutting ties to anyone who dares move on to other things. You never know what opportunities it may bring, and who may end up following a link to Dave, and then to here. And suddenly it really does become more about the people within a team working collaboratively, rather than always competing – and despite the hippy sentiment, it’s easy to find the value that can bring to any business.

*In a wave of productivity, there’s also a new update by me on my new group blog, 140char.com, dedicated to all microblogging. And don’t forget to subscribe via RSS if you don’t want to miss any posts here.

Measuring marriage – and social media

I’ve been involved in a lot of discussion about measuring social media and social networks, particularly around readership, influence, and social media and community marketing. And I quite often hear the quote that such measurement is like ‘figuring out if you have a good marriage’, which comes from Ian Schafer of Deep Focus. The Adweek article in which is appears goes on to say: “Quantitative measurements will only get you so far. “You can’t assign a number to that,” he said.”

I’m no analytics or statistics expert, but when I thought about, it occurred to me that there’s actually quite a lot of quantitative measurement of marriages that does go on. And judging whether you’re in a good marriage certainly requires benchmarking in some quantitative or qualitative way. Just the same as social media measurement can go pretty far in indicating whether your audience sees you as their one true love:

Anniversaries: Wedding anniversaries have rules (Paper for the 1st year? Gold for 50) to indicate the length of time to all interested parties – because a general trend would be that longevity equals a good marriage. By the same token, longterm, loyal, returning readers indicate you’re doing something right!

Divorce rates: By the same token, you can watch trends on divorces to see if a group is happy in marriage. And you can watch single visit users, and definitely unsubscribers and users deleting their accounts to gauge the same thing for your site. And unlike general figures for splitting up, you’re able to easily isolate individuals to explore the reasons in more detail.

Holidays and presents: Whether it’s a dowry, or the amount your partner spent on the wedding/honeymoon/Valentine’s Day/Birthday presents etc, at some point even the most romantic soul has probably looked at how much is being spent as a guide to how much their partner cares. That’s why engagement rings are supposed to cost 3 month’s wages, for example. And a key metric in the website/user relationship is definitely click-throughs and sales conversions.

Romantic dinners: One of the big tips about marriages is to make time to go out and spend quality time romancing each other. You could see that couples in a good marriage enjoy this time, chat all night, gaze longingly at each other across the table, etc. By the same token, you can monitor the bounce rate and time on site of your visitors to see if they’re visiting several pages and enjoying your company – or splitting at the earliest opportunity.

Doing the housework: Does your partner invest time and effort in doing their share around the house? Do they help to make it a home? And do your users invest time and effort in submitting User Generated Content? Do they customise their profiles? Do they comment on stories and forums?

Are they faithful?: In the modern digital world, it’s highly unlikely a visitor will use just one site in any area of interest. But rather than sulking about their polygamous ways, it’s about following them and looking at who their affair is with. Figure out what is so attractive about the other websites they visit, and look at whether you can beat it, or use it in some way. Rather than seeing them continue to stray, inject some romance by dressing up your website in the RSS feeds of the other destinations, for example.

Talking about your partner: One of the big qualitative and quantitative benchmarks is seeing how often your friends talk about their partners, and whether it’s normally in a good or bad way. That can be with friends over a coffee or a beer – or in a survey by a magazine. Whatever the source, it’s what prompts you to go home and ask why your partner doesn’t treat you as well, or tell them how badly someone else is doing. And it’s the big one for social media measurement, because it’s all about the referrals and the recommendations. Recommendations and links are the equivalent of public displays of affection.

Now, if you combine all that information about two individuals in a relationship, you start seeing that actually, there’s quite a lot of ways you could build up a reasonable idea of whether a relationship is being enjoyed by the people within it, and then be able to compare it to other marriages. It’s not 100% accurate, and maybe they’re staying together for the children, but metrics never cover ever 100%

And by the same token, there’s a huge wealth of information already available on social media marketing, especially if you’re already tracking the normal metrics via a standard analytics package.

The trick is working out what to add to what is already available (influence of prominent couples/recommendations for example), and how to bring it all together into something that is understandable. That’s the alchemy.

I know more about you now…

For ages I’ve relied on Feedburner and MyBlogLog stats for basic monitoring, as my audience figures aren’t big enough to really require much else.

But my basic curiousity has led me to trying Clicky, and so far it’s been great. In addition to incorporating Feedburner RSS stats, it also shows a variety of other interesting features, and it’s all in a clear, simply format which means I can actually understand what’s going on.

You get your visitors, their search terms, IP addresses, and their position on a world map. It also gives you an idea of what they’re doing while they’re visiting. And the Spy tool is a neat live realtime monitor of how people are interacting with a site.

At the moment, only thewayoftheweb is linked, but I suspect I’ll be registering my other sites tonight, as it’s nice and easy with a simple bit of click and insert code.

Depending on the size of your site, you may be required to make a small payment. From the registration info:

“Clicky offers free service for up to 3 web sites and 1,000 daily page views per day per site. We also have two levels of premium service which get you more sites, more features, and higher traffic levels – starting at less than $2/month. More information

When you first register, we give you 21 days of premium service for FREE! This gives you a chance to try it out with any web site and fall in love with some of the features we offer that you won’t find anywhere else (like Spy and RSS feeds). We’re certain you’ll love Clicky so much that you’ll want to support us by upgrading your account!”

And, as a bonus, there’s an affiliate scheme. And the funds can go towards upgrading my account once the first 21 days are over…So if you fancy trying it, and you also fancy helping me out on the back of it, use Clicky rather than a Google search!