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TAMU Webmaster's Blog

Information and insight from the A&M Webmasters

We Respect Your Privacy, Don’t We?

July 23rd, 2014 by Erick

Any of us who have a credit card, online social media profile, or anything else that stores personal data has received one of those “we respect your privacy” notices, which are typically several pages of fine print telling what they will actually do to share your information. Similarly, every time we sign up for an online contest we always do a cost analysis — is the free t-shirt that they’re giving away worth the hassle of dealing with all the spam we will surely get as a consequence?

We are not immune here at the university. It is a matter of state law that our web sites have to post a privacy statement informing users what we do with the information we collect about them. In most cases this is just server logs, and most of the time we don’t do much with them. Privacy statements, then, have become considered more of a nuisance that we have to bear with rather than — to refer back to my previous post — a matter of hospitality aimed at making a better user experience.

We have even made it easy, creating a generic statements page on the university site that you across campus can link to. Most of us do so without thinking. Have we actually read the privacy statement there? If so does the information that our webservers collect actually match up with what is disclosed there? Given the number of different environments on campus I suspect not.

While this practice might be understandable [I can't legally say excused] for generic log information, we are equally lax when it comes to forms which collect personally identifiable information. That is not excusable, either from a legal perspective or from providing a good customer experience. The latest Noel Levitz e-expectations report for the first time contains an entire section examining the issue of student and parent attitudes toward privacy, and it shows that both groups are concerned about how their personal information is treated.

Even sharing contact information on an official application for admission was rated as a concern to many students and the majority of parents. Things like signing up to “receive more information” or signing up for an online event were concerns for over half of both groups. If there is concern over even these more official channels, then we certainly need to be more visible in our day-to-day contact forms.

We have many ways of requesting information from visitors here on campus. I will make the assumption that all of them have legitimate purposes. I also know that we have been asked several times by various groups on campus to share the information that we collect. I am not a lawyer so I can’t say whether we could legally do so, but doing so without disclosing it to the visitor would certainly be unethical. In the spirit of “hospitality” instead of “service” we need to go further, though, and be very up-front and transparent to our users. They are trusting us with their personal information, so it is our responsibility to let them know we deserve that trust.

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014 Miscellaneous No Comments

Insights from the Outside

July 22nd, 2014 by Erick

Sometimes the best ideas for what we, or any industry, do comes from the outside. I have recently started reading Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business which, as the title suggests, is aimed primarily at a business audience. In it he describes the process by which he created a highly successful collection of restaurants in New York City. The lessons he learned and the techniques that he used can transcend industry and be applicable even within something as unrelated as web development.

His basic premise centers around what he calls “enlightened hospitality.” This concept completely changes the importance placed on the various stakeholders for the overall enterprise. [I leave it as an exercise for the interested reader to track down the specifics. An entire management class could probably be composed from them, but that is beyond the scope of this blog.] It has proven enormously effective, though. Companies that Meyer has identified as embodying the spirit of enlightened hospitality, such as Chipotle and Google, have been among the most successful over the last several years.

Make no mistake about it, we are in the hospitality business. Students have a choice of where to attend, and it is largely on us to affect their decisions. (Note the Noel Levitz report referenced in my last post about university web sites being the most important influencer in a student’s decision.) Hospitality is something that comes natural at A&M. We are known for and pride ourselves on the friendliness of our student body. Talk to anyone in the visitor center and they will tell you that if we can get prospective students here for a visit the experience is often enough to cement their decision.

We need to convey that same openness. Too often we treat our web sites as a tool to inform our audience of what they need to know. Hospitality, though, is not a monologue. It is a dialog. We need to talk with our prospective students and parents, not at them. This creates the atmosphere where they feel included in the conversation, which is the first step in making them feel welcome and at home.

We are already, starting to put this into practice. I have briefly mentioned in the past that we are in the process of redesigning the university web site. The biggest change that I see in the new version will be that, if we do our jobs right, it will reflect this concept and be more inviting than the current version.

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014 Miscellaneous No Comments

What Students are Looking For

July 21st, 2014 by Erick

Each year the Noel Levitz consultant firm publishes an e-expectations report on the expectations of graduating high school students and their parents. This is an invaluable report series for gaining insight into what we should include on our web sites. We use it as a set of guidelines, making sure that all of the most important elements that they cover are available and easy to find. This year’s report is out, and as usual it has some important takeaways for us to consider.

I encourage you to download and read the full report, but here are a few highlights:

  • Both parents and students rated college websites as the most influential resource when making up their mind. It is also their preferred method of doing research and the source which they consider the most reliable.
  • Access to mobile devices is nearly universal among this demographic, but only 71% of students use them to access a university site and only 45% of parents did so.
  • Paid advertisement is becoming more effective. Thirty one percent of students have clicked on a paid ad in search or social media channels. These tend to be the students who have not yet decided which school to attend — i.e., potential recruits.
  • Social media continues to be big and continues to grow, but patterns are changing. Other than Facebook and Twitter, all other major channels doubled in usage since last year’s survey. Visual media such as YouTube and Instagram have passed Twitter in popularity. Google+, important to SEO as we have seen, has become viable with 30% of students on that platform.
  • Privacy is still a concern, especially among parents. Collecting information is important for us as a university, but we need to let the students and parents know that we respect their privacy and will be using their information responsibly.
Monday, July 21st, 2014 Miscellaneous No Comments

Do frameworks, libraries, and themes speed up your development?

July 17th, 2014 by Michael

Web developers can be funny (in case that’s news to you). Myself, I get tickled by the Vanilla JS website. According to the Vanilla JS team, “Vanilla JS is already used on more websites than jQuery, Prototype JS, MooTools, YUI, and Google Web Toolkit - combined… It is the most lightweight framework available anywhere… your users’ browsers will have Vanilla JS loaded into memory before it even requests your site.”

How can it do that? Because they’re joking – vanilla.js is an empty file (or an empty line in production sites). It reminds you that if you want to fade out elements or make an Ajax call, you can use plain vanilla Javascript – you don’t need jQuery. In fact, jQuery takes more lines of code to do the same thing as Javascript (well, if you include some newlines).

Yes, frameworks and libraries can speed up common web development tasks. But you have to learn how to use them first. And then, what about tasks that are not so common? Then you have to figure out the “jQuery way”  or the “SASS way”  to solve the problem.  Or the “Zend way” or the “Node.js way” or the “AngularJS way.”

I have the same problem with WordPress themes and plugins. They offer widgets to do common tasks, but if they don’t do what you want, you have to figure out what they are doing – what function you have to fix, in what file.  The other day, I felt a little challenged because I couldn’t find some of the CSS for our new Canvas-themed WordPress site.  “But wasn’t it in your stylesheet, Michael?” No, since themes are “highly customizable,” the options panel was generating a separate set of styles. (Note to team: the options panel can be disabled.)

Veteran Linux users will recognize the underlying problem. That’s why they like to use the command line, because it does exactly what you want – as long as you don’t mistype anything. When people who feared code started to blog, they often remained prisoners of their fears. For example, simply to change <?php echo get_the_title(); ?> to <?php echo get_the_title()," | My Blog"; ?>, they would have to install a WordPress plugin. They had to do things the hard way because they didn’t know an easier way. Part of being a professional web developer, of course, is knowing the easier way – working directly with HTML, CSS, etc.

Handholding is fine as long as you can get your hand loose when you need to.

Thursday, July 17th, 2014 Programming No Comments

Google Tools

July 17th, 2014 by Erick

For several weeks I have been talking about Google as a search engine company.  That is true, but let’s also remember that they are a for-profit corporation.  While their search engine is the reason we go to their site, the primary source of their revenue is from selling ads. Yes, I am sure they would love for us all to use their search because it’s theirs, but in the end they want us to use their search because that’s where the ads (or at least many of them) are.

Google has a deep understanding of this, and almost everything they do ultimately has some tie to improving their search returns. Google has become the dominant search engine because they have historically anticipated what people want from a search and produced the best returns. The better the quality of the search the more people they have using the service, and the more people using the service the more ads they can display. They therefore realize that it is in their own best interest for us to publish quality web pages. In order to continue improving their search returns they need us to produce better content. To that end, they have introduced several online resources that help us do our jobs better.

Reading the products page on the Google Developers site is exhaustive. I had intended to do a list of the more useful items there, but the length of the article that would have created changed my plans. Instead here are two new offerings.

Web Starter Kit

This is actually the product that prompted this post. It is a new package that provides an optimized set files to get you started on a new HTML5 project. It has everything you need to make the site responsive for mobile and optimized for download speed.

Web Fundamentals

Another relatively new feature, this site aims at providing a curated set of best practices for web development. Think of it as an online boot camp for webmasters. It is primarily geared toward developing on a mobile platform but the lessons and tips presented are useful anywhere.

Thursday, July 17th, 2014 HTML, Search No Comments

Google Emphasizes Mobile

July 16th, 2014 by Erick

Google made a big announcement on Monday regarding search returns for mobile devices. They recognize the growing importance of mobile and are taking steps to make mobile search more user friendly.  People grow frustrated with they click through to a site and can’t read its content, so Google  will begin posting notices on the search return page for entries that contain primarily technologies that may not work on mobile devices. The prime example would be Adobe Flash, since it does not run on iOS devices.

Here is an example of what they say it might look like:

Screenshot of Google search return

It may be some time before we see how this actually plays out. I did a quick search for sites that I know contain flash — even those which are 100% flash driven — and I am not seeing the notice in my search results. My Android phone does support Flash, but even on an iPad I couldn’t find an example of a site with a notice.

In doing this search I noticed that many sites are already moving from Flash to HTML5 animations anyway.  Even those which haven’t are starting to do a better job of replacing the Flash content with at least static image content.  Still, I think the fact that Google is taking this step is a clear signal that we need to meet our users’ needs however they come to our sites.

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014 Mobile Web, Search No Comments

Visibility of Content on the Page

July 15th, 2014 by Erick

Great article from our colleagues in the Tarleton web services group on how to (and how not to) format your page so that readers can find the important content —

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014 Web Content No Comments

Making this the place to be

July 14th, 2014 by Erick

If you are a regular follower of this site you will have certainly noticed a big pickup in the frequency of posts over the last couple of weeks. That was intentional and not just a matter of posting content about my new SEO project.

As a campus we have struggled in creating a cohesive community of web professionals. I have been asked several times about whether there is an organization that lets us share thoughts and ideas or something that we can point new employees to so that they can become familiar with our local environment. I have tried to get more activity in the uWeb group, but given our time constraints it is hard for us to get away for in-person meetings. While I won’t abandon that effort, I hope that increasing the posts here will be the next best thing.

To that end I have asked my entire staff to start adding posts. This will hopefully give the added benefit of having a broader viewpoint that my voice alone, and introduce them to you as well. Charlie introduced himself last week, and Michael has already been posting occasionally, but now the others should be following shortly.

I have also invited a few others from across campus to be guest bloggers. This will allow us to keep you informed about events and projects beyond what Marcomm is involved with. If any of you would like to similarly write about something that would be of interest to campus give me a call and we can get something set up.

Monday, July 14th, 2014 Miscellaneous No Comments

Image Search

July 11th, 2014 by Erick

Whenever we think of search engine optimization we generally think about how elements like content, links, title, and so forth affect page rankings. One of the elements that doesn’t get a lot of attention is images. For page-level searches images probably do not add very much weight. We know to add alt tags, but that is more for accessibility than SEO. There have been a lot of questions as to whether Google could pull text out of images — they are one of the leaders in OCR after all and use scanning technology extensively in their Google Books project — but all tests to date indicate that they are not incorporating text elements contained in images into their algorithm.

One piece of information in photos that does appear to be used is the Exif meta data associated with the image file. This information normally appears in photos taken with digital cameras and can tell things like date, resolution, and technical aspects of the camera and software used to produce the photo. Tools like Adobe Bridge can be used to add further meta information such as the subject of the photo, people or places shown, and an open description where you can put whatever keywords you want. We do know that Google can access this information, so we should be using it and making sure to give our pages every bit of optimization we can.

I asked our graphics specialist about whether Photoshop had the ability to put this meta information into images produced there, and he indicated that it does not. For those, then, we would need to make use of tools like Adobe Bridge and put in important contextual information. This would be especially important for things like logos and page feature photos.

Beyond what this can do for our page rankings, let’s also think a bit wider. Google also offers a specialized image search. You don’t even have to explicitly go to that function, most returns that have closely related images have prominent “Images For” link right there on the search returns page. Looking at the images returned for a search on “Texas A&M University” shows almost none of them from our sources. Many people look at images and then click through to the page containing one they are interested in, so optimizing images as well as pages, then, could give a second avenue to our content.

Friday, July 11th, 2014 Search 2 Comments

Hello World!

July 10th, 2014 by Charlie

Since this is the first time I am posting to the Webmaster blog, I thought I would go ahead and just make this a general introduction.

“Hi, I’m Charlie.”

I’m the system administrator as well as general “IT guy” in Marketing & Communications. Simply put, my job is to make sure all the sites and applications we develop are up, running and accessible. I started here in 2006 as a part of CIS’s Customer Applications group. Over the next three years or so, I slowly moved from half-time to full time at Marcomm. Eventually in 2010 they decided just to hire me directly as a regular employee and I have been here since.

My main duties consist of taking care of all our web and application servers which are currently housed with the CIS Infrastructure group VM service. We do have a few machines on our own hardware remaining in the Teague machine room which we hope to have moved by the end of the summer. In my next few posts I hope to outline some of our server hardware and services history and outline some of the decisions we made along the way. Later on I hope to talk about ways we are trying to improve the way we do things and keep up with all the interesting new technologies out there.

Looking forward to it!

Thursday, July 10th, 2014 Systems Comments Off