In which I launch a badly built website

Confession: I am/was a pretty shite web developer. While I could construct a website that more or less worked, my code was riddled with errors and prone to all manner of unexpected quirks. I doubt it’s got any better since.

I once received a call from a (thankfully friendly) customer asking me why his website had the words “piss sticks” in the corner. My sphincter popped in and out with fear. I knew instantly what it was – one of the ‘amusing’ error messages I created to make my stumbling progress easier and more fun and that had somehow made it onto the live site. Rather than spool out a MySQL error, I couldn’t resist making sites swear at me.

Given the state of my code, there was a lot of swearing.

Even though I haven’t developed a website in something like 5 years, I sometimes wake up screaming in the night in the cold realisation that there are still entire businesses wobbling around on the rickety codebases in which I specialised.

I labour this point, because on and off over the last year or two I have been slowly building a website. Purely for personal fun, and no business or individual relies on it working, thank God.

It’s been a salutary reminder of the complexities involved in building a website. I still silently berate our previous SEO company for the gimcrack structure and legacy of bizarre pages they left behind, but even building a simple website with limited functionality constantly throws up little hurdles to overcome – often with unexpected side effects on an unrelated part of the site. As our (as in the business’ site) is built on a platform that has evolved over several years, and been subject to messing around from a dozen different directions (SEO, design, business requirements, customer feedback, personal prejudices, testing) it’s no wonder that turning it around is like manoeuvring an oil tanker.

It’s been useful to see how far and fast things have changed. Back in the day, all we had was PHP and MySQL queries – Javascript was a troublesome thing that tended to be avoided. I’d dabbled with AJAX very early on (I remember the original concepts coming out) but now everything is JS libraries and API calls through this and that. On the one hand it’s very speedy, but on the other it adds an abstraction layer because you don’t have to understand the code – just call it at need.

I don’t know why I say that, because I never really understood it in the first place, but still I like An Old Man rant from time to time.

All this I mention because when you’re a pureplay marketeer or a non-technical SEO (they do exist) all of this stuff must just be meaningless mumbo jumbo. I’ve said in the past that web developers can and do get away with murder because they are often managed by non-technical people or under the thumb of a know-nothing marketer who just wants the Prettiness. However, it is also the case that a surprising number of people in a field such as SEO can’t program a single thing of their own and don’t understand what’s going on under the hood.

If that’s you, I suggest digging out some tutorials and building something – even if it’s simple and a bit crap. Your developers will thank you if you can speak their language even a little bit. The same is true for design/CSS/whatever. Learn something of those skills as the jobs market is going to get a lot tougher when the Euro finally goes tits up and plunges us into a recession again.

Anyway, my site needs a link so Google can start poking around it properly – so here it is in all its glory*

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* may be less glorious than advertised.

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Metro.co.uk – most pisstaking popover ad ever?

I know that sites need advertising to survive. I also know that overly intrusive advertising can kill the user experience.  Check out this visual nightmare from Metro.co.uk  that I was presented with when trying to read about the fat sleeping benefits supervisor that Lucien Freud made a star – a full 850x1025px of  graphical madness. “Less is more” is clearly not a memo that reached the boys at Metro / O2.

Thanks guys!

The New Google is All Business

So Google’s gone Pro. It seems an odd thing to be saying of a multizillion corporate entity, but you’ve always had the feeling with Google that the various teams on their various products were let loose to do more or less what they pleased. And so when you looked at any Google product in isolation, it came with its own distinctive flavour. Analytics didn’t look like Calendar, which didn’t look like Gmail and so on. And nothing looked like Orkut (which didn’t matter, as no-one outside La Paz actually used it).

Sure, some of that was down to acquisitions and legacy issues, but you always got the sense that without boring corporate guidelines the engineers could play around with things to their hearts content.

This week, buried under the torrent of coverage about Google+, Google also launched a new look SERPs, a new look Gmail, a new look Calendar, made the new look for Analytics more or less a permanent feature. It’s not hard to guess that there’s a new gun in town – and it turns out to be ex-Apple designer Andy Hertzfield.

Where others failed to have an impact against the ingrained ethos of Google, Hertzfield has seemingly managed to stamp a corporate sensibility on the search giant. In the argot of design, Google now seemingly has a recognisable visual flavour.

But is it any good?

Well, it’s taking some getting used to, personally. The last few years for almost everyone across the board has been towards big, cartoony, glossy visuals. The influence of the first wave of 2.0 sites is still with us in the main and I’ve grown accustomed to loving big chunky buttons with drop shadows and all the visual hoo-ha that CSS has unleased on the world.

So finding yourself amid swathes of white, with barely-there grey borders is a bit of shock to the system. So much so, in fact, that to me the whole set of Google products suddenly feels like a early-2000s corporate intranet or – more pertinently – a suite of applications.

Superficial stuff? Sure: but it tells us something about Google’s psychology and self-image in 2011. The idealistic 60s vibe of the whole project has been something of a myth for years now, but it lived on in little projects like Google Health, Google Power Meter and the “Wonder Wheel” – all of which have been quietly sent to the knackers yard this week.

The new, lean, Spartan Google is all business.

Given the amount of time I used Google products, and on the basis of past experience, this culture shock will fade. One day, I will look back on the clunky old logos and tasteless blue underline and chortle ruefully.

Today, I just feel a little bit chillier.