Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Organising a Tweetup

At the beginning of 2011 I was handed the organisation of the Ealing Tweetup by Mark Hillary as he left for Sao Paulo in Brazil.

It wasn’t something I was planning to take on, as I had enough responsibilities already (running a digital consulting business as well as being a husband & father) and to be honest I was enjoying being a participant in London’s biggest ‘social’ Social Media based event….. rather than the person who had to sort it out.

However 10 months on and several Tweetups later, I’m writing this post on the eve of another Ealing Tweetup. According to the site used to pull the attendees together, almost 40 people are likely to turn up at the Rose & Crown in South Ealing tomorrow night (

So what have I learnt from the experience?
Well…. I’ve met some great people, increased my musical knowledge (a little) and help keep going an event that brings virtual friends together. Its not been easy at times… but I now know that (with the help of some very generous sponsors) this social networking thing can be fun!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Surviving a peak eCommerce Christmas - part 4

For the last few days I've been posting useful things to do on the run-up to peak Christmas online trading and ensuring your website can cope with the demands of your visitors . Here's my final post on the subject (for now):

Speak to the business
Understand the marketing activity planned over the festive period and the dates that they are aiming for most impact. What are their targets compared to last year? Rather than add to your load, they may be able to stagger their campaigns and flatten out demand over a more sustained period.

Have a plan for failure
You may see this as a little defeatist, but I always recommend having something up your sleeve in case the worst does actually happen. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to put an alternative site in-place within minutes and it may even be the case that you actually turn your site off when it comes under unprecedented demand. However the worst experience to give to your users is a very plain “site offline” message. Nothing says ‘go away and don’t come back’ like a server error page. At the very least make sure this page (probably a customer 500 error page) has some useful information such as your telephone customer service number and a list of your stores.

In summary…. There are still a number of actions you can take to try and de-risk the situation. Keeping your site stable over the peak period will then allow you to focus on the functionality and performance improvements in the new year, so that you’re more prepared for future peaks in demand.

Previous postings are here:
Part 3
Part 2
Part 1

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Surviving a peak eCommerce Christmas - part 3

To help your company get through what is expected to be the businest online Christmas yet, I'm put together some helpful tips.

Set up your own monitoring
Some hosting companies provide a website monitoring service and others may even report on availability as part of a service level agreement. However I would personally have an alternative monitor that is within my control to provide an agnostic perspective. Although it is possible to build your own, there are a number of services out there that can go beyond a simple ‘ping’ of your homepage to confirm it is there and working. Some of the more developed monitoring services can also: check the availability of specific stock, confirm the whole transaction process is working, as well as checking & recording the response time of key pages. Often it is possible to predict problems before they happen. Websites tend to go slow before they break, so getting an email or SMS alert one evening that things are taking a longer than average time to respond… may be an indication that you’re about to lose your site completely.

Try to stress test before the peak comes
I know it is not always possible at the 11th hour to test an eCommerce site to the peak levels expected of the coming Christmas trade. But actually knowing how your site responds under high volumes has huge benefits regardless of the outcome…If it fails, you know when (and hopefully how it fails)… and knowing is always better than not. It may also give you a good indication of other remedial action you need to take. But if it passes and actually stands up to your anticipated load, you have the confidence to keep trading.

Previous posts on this subject are here:
Surviving Christmas Part 2
Surviving Christmas Part 1

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Surviving a peak eCommerce Christmas - part 2

To help you get through peak Christmas trading this year, I'm posting as series of helpful tips.
Here's a couple more:

Optimise your images
eCommerce websites are not just made up of code, they typically include a lot of visual assets as well. Users downloading pages including high quality images and possibly video from your servers at busy times can cripple your hardware and bandwidth, degrading everyone’s experience. Ask yourself “Do I really need that huge photo on the homepage?” and even if the answer is ‘yes’ you should check to see if you can compress it even slightly with no obvious reduction in quality. Remember… compressing images to optimum levels should be part of your regular website publishing process and just because you have a great data connection in the office, don’t always assume your user has one too.

Speak with your hosting company
A lot of website availability issues occur when systems are subjected to unpredicted demand. You should already have some idea what your busiest day and hour figures are and when in the next few weeks this could be (if you also do your analysis right, you should also have a good idea of your peak visitors and transactions – see point 1). If you haven’t already, talk to your hosting company and share this information with them. Ask them what they can do to maintain site availability and what monitoring / alerting they have in place. Also discuss with them the possibility of temporarily boosting your bandwidth to higher levels should you need to.

The previous post is here:

Friday, November 25, 2011

Surviving a peak eCommerce Christmas

So how is your website going to get through Christmas? How can you test things to ensure you can survive this year's busiest periods? Here's some pointers to guide you....

Check your figures
Look back at your website analytics from the same period last year and see what volume of visits (not just unique visitors) and transactions you had back then. Dig down into the detail and record not just your peak daily figures, but your peak hourly or even your minute-by-minute maximums.Then multiply these numbers by the growth you’ve have had over the last year (always rounding up your figures, as it is always better to err on the side of caution). This will give you an idea of the peak figures you can expect in the next few weeks.

Check if you actually have any problems and what they are
If your site actually broke during peak trading last year (rather than just went slow), identify exactly when and how it broke. Speak with your IT Operations team to see if they can provide more detail about what happened and what action they took.Note: If you have hit similar peaks to last Christmas over the last year of online trading, also check to see if you had a reoccurrence at these points. If you haven’t, then you may have less than an issue than you thought.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Twas the month before Christmas...

Imagine the situation.... you've recently moved departments and been put in charge of your eCommerce website. However it is just a couple of weeks until Christmas peak trading. Perhaps you've also been told the site almost broke around this time last year and fear for the worst. Is it too late to do anything?

Don’t worry, there’s always something you can do to help your site survive peak holiday trading. Christmas and sale shopping are both a blessing and a curse for online retailers, as unlike their store counter-parts, website managers don’t have the ability to queue people out of the door and around the block. Instead sites have to be permanently available to deal with visitors, but when they want to arrive….

This is great for the bottom line if you can cater for this demand. But it is bad for business both financially and reputation-wise if you can’t.

Over the next few posts are my list of key things you should do to survive Christmas peak eCommerce trading....

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Some Facebook comments now indexed by Google

It's been widely known that Facebook does not allow search engines such as Google to index its content. It does what it can to stop the Googlebot getting in (and instead Facebook has done a deal with Microsoft for Bing to power its internal search). 

However, If you use your Facebook account to post a comment on a website that uses Facebook Comments, your comment can now be indexed by Google's web spiders. This is because Google has developed its software to be able to run some JavaScript, which Facebook Comments uses.

This means it will now be searchable in Google's index and could help your SEO efforts. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Prepare yourself for an eCommerce Christmas

If you run a transactional website you just have 2 weeks to prepare for the busiest online shopping of the year! Get ready...

According to Amazon, Monday December 5 at 9pm will mark the peak of this year’s online Christmas shopping season in the UK. For other retailers the key date is sometime the following week, when people start to focus on the presents they need to get and panic buying sets in.

IMRG calculates Europeans will spend 52 billion euros online this year. This forecast is 20% up on last year, which was higher than anything else before it.

So.... "Will it meet this lofty projection?" I hear you ask. 'Quite possibly' is my view, as eCommerce sites try to market to their potential customers is as many ways as possible. And with newer innovations such as Facebook stores (FCommerce) in the mix, there's now even more ways to transact online.

Are your sites ready?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Photos from #ishopkent2011

Here are some photos I took from Friday's #ishopkent2011 eCommerce in Kent event & awards.

Note: these may not be great quality, bit if you attended please use.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The day that Social Media died

Yesterday I gave a presentation to the eCommerce in Kent (iShopKent) event. The topic I was supposed to talk about was 'Social Media for Retail', however I think I managed to shake things up a bit.

And it wasn't my criticism of Google Plus while Jon Marsh from Google was in the room that raised the most eyebrows.... but this slide:

The whole idea behind this image, besides a bit of shock to the system after the lunchtime recess, was to communicate that if you are a company looking to use channels such as Twitter & Facebook to get your message across... you don't need Social Media, you need Social Business.

So as far as the attendees were concerned, Social Media needed to die and we should have had a minute silence.

Perhaps that's what the attendees would have preferred as well... :-)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Google’s new AdWords algorithm


We all should know by that Google makes around 400 changes a year to its search algorithm (yes, that is over 1 change a day), with some such as the recent 'freshness' update being more significant than others.

However last month Google made a change to its AdWords algorithm which is significant in several regards
1. This affects Google's revenue if they get it wrong
2. This affects advertisers (e.g. those with fixed PPC budgets may find they get more or less for their money now)

What actually changed was an update to the 'Quality Score' factor that is given to each advert within Google's pay-per-click system. Quality Score in the past has previously been an arbitrary weighting that was given and that meant more experienced online marketers could mysteriously bid less than their competitors and still get a higher ranking in the search engine results pages (SERP's).

More and more is now gradually known about Quality Score (mainly thanks to Google posting blogs and videos on the subject) and it is now widely accepted that it is a mixture of three things:
a) the historical performance of the advert (what percentage of people actually clicked on it)
b) the relevance of the ad text to the search term (e.g. are you actually advertising for what people are seaching for)
c) the quality of the landing page (how relevant is the page you're actually taking users to?)

Google has now put a greater emphasis on the landing page quality, which to me makea a lot of sense. All too often you get taken from a PPC advert through to a page that has very little to do with the craftily-worded advert.

I just hope they also factor the page speed performance into account as well!

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Great Google PPC scam?

Does your company spend money each month on Google advertising? You know, that small little Pay-per-click campaign you started a couple of years back for a pound per month, that you now have to spend a few hundred quid a week or more on?

Well, according to one train of thought it could be costing you more than it needs to. And the company you have to blame is?.... Google.

Yes, that's right, the 'do no evil' company is possibility affecting your bottom line says Vinay Sahni:


Well, have you attended an Internet exhibition, bought an Internet industry magazine or even just purchased a business publication recently? And did a 'free Google advertising' or similar leaflet fall out of it offering you £50 or £70 of free keyword advertising?
Sahni states that this activity (e.g. giving ad vouchers to those who don't currently use PPC) is not just encouraging more people to use Google's advertising system, it is driving the price up.Yes, his theory is that the online auction of keywords is skewed when you let more people bid on the same terms and giving (potentially less-experienced) users into the system with what really is free money. Like a person who enters into an auction with someone else's wallet, the theory is that everyone else using their own money has to bid that bit more to beat them. So overall the rising tide of cost makes more money for Google at no loss.
Although a good theory, I don't actually buy this. Plus there are several possible flaws in the argument:
1. Google is actually losing money giving away vouchers (Assuming there are other bidders who are prepared to pay but were out-bid by someone with a free voucher)
2. Its not always about paying the highest price for some keywords. Often a more cost-effective campaign can be run by targetting lower positions (although you could argue that these are still more expensive with free bidders loose in the system)
3. The price of keywords will find its automatic level once the free bidders go away again (although its not often I've seen the price of keywords drop over time).
4. Sahni is forgetting Google's Quality Score weighting of PPC adverts (e.g. how well your advertising matches what users are looking for r how relevant your ad is). This secret scoring system is designed to reward PPC advertisers who take the effort to optimise their online advertising. It therefore means that those who know what they are doing don't necessarily have to bid more than those who are using a free voucher.
There's no proof that Google does NOT return the price of keywords back to the proper market price over time and indeed this would be a huge reputational and business mistake if it was ever the case.  However the fact remains that you should always monitor your PPC campaigns to ensure you are always getting the best return on your marketing spend.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Multi-Channel Future - are you in denial?

If you work in retail these days you have to get used to a customer who is increasingly tech-savvy and multi-channel minded.

Gone are the old days where stores would offer a 'price matching guarantee' to anyone who found the same product only in a competing branch nearby or glossy catalogue. Now they have to offer the same deal to any reputable online source too or face some pretty strong criticism (usually on social media networks Luke Twitter or in blogs).

And its not just tightly-clasped black & white printouts that nowadays get shown to store staff to price match. Its now incredibly easy to take a picture with your smartphone camera, submit the image to a site or application and get an almost instant price from a number of highly-competitive online retailers.
Note: If you haven't tried it already, Amazon's iPhone app does exactly this.

In my opinion some retailers are most definitely still in denial about the whole multi-channel approach. They don't want to join up the sales channels in an effort to win the sale and their store staff on commission are not encouraged to tell customers that the same product is not out of stock on the company website.
And why should they? Unless there is some way of attributing an online sale to the physical visit, then there's no value in them giving the company website address. To them they might as well tell the potential customer to go next door to the competition....for all the financial good it will do them.

But is doesn't have to be like that...... Does it?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

27% of smartphone owners will shop online this Christmas

Smartphone usage for online shopping purposes is on the rise and
Christmas peak trading is almost upon us. Therefore if you don't have
a mobile commerce site that provides information, displays products at
competitive prices and ultimately has the ability to sell via a
portable interface..... you're missing out on the biggest sales
opportunity of the year.

This holiday season millions of smartphone-weilding shoppers will be
looking to transact online for everything from presents for their
nearest & dearest, to the latest designer outfit to look fantastic at
the office party.

According to Deloitte's 2011 Annual Holiday Survey 27% odf those who
owned a smartphone (e.g the Applie iPhone or one of the many Android
devices) will use their phone for Christmas / Holiday shopping. The
study also highlighted that consumers with smartphones will more
generically use them to:
find store locations (67%)
compare prices (59%)
obtain product information (51%)
shop online (45%)
scan bar codes (40%)

Retailers now need to tap into this market. They may even want to
provide services that will encourage smartphone purchases such as WiFi
connectivity in store (useful if your products are sold out in a
physical location, but still available via your online store) and QR
Codes (to tie together the online and offline worlds).

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Google is killing Sidewiki

So, Google Sidewiki is going the same way as Buzz and that other thing
that nobody used..... (Wave wasn't it?)

This news must hardly come as a surprise to those who actually used
the product. It never really got mainstream acceptance in the way that
some other Google products did, even though it was pretty useful.

Google's approach creating a range of different products and
killing-off those that don't work, is a double edge sword. Yes they
are willing to crowdsource approval of their efforts and see which
ones are viable in the longer term, but it does create a bit of upset
with those who were keen users.

Personally I'm a little sad to see it go, as I was a user of it for a
while when it first launched. I either used it to make notes against a
site, like a schoolboy writes in the margin of a literature classic or
as a form of private digital vandalism.