The Forgotten 404 Page

There’s a page on your site that never gets any love.  You don’t really spend time thinking about it, your readers hate it when they see it and Google dings you for search if you don’t have it set up correctly.  The lowly 404 page…

Admit it, you probably don’t even know what yours looks like.  Why should you?  You setup everything right on the site, then no one should ever see it.

Wrong…no matter how well you run your site, someone will end up seeing your 404 page.  At that point, you can either give them a fighting chance to find what they want, or you can annoy them and send them running for the hinterlands, never to return.

Some serious 404 sins:

  • ‘We don’t need no 404’ – Redirect to another page on your site, but don’t tell the user it’s a 404.  Leave them wondering what the heck happened. This tells the customer you think you know better than they do.  Users love that…
  • ‘Show them the laundry’ – give them some error code and tell them to email it to the system adminstrator, who will promptly ignore it.  Nothing says ‘we’re clueless’ better than asking your users to forward 600 lines of “stack trace message” to the “admin”.
  • You have reached the end of the Internet‘ – give them a cute, funny error, but no other option.  They’ll laugh, while they’re typing in the url for your competitor.
  • Nah Nah Nah, you can’t find it‘ – Tell them the paqe they aren’t looking for isn’t there, and nothing else.  Give them no options and they’ll find one…that doesn’t involve you.

It gets better.  Google has serious issues with sites that implement their 404 pages incorrectly.  Here are their guidelines…

So what should your 404 page be?  Think of it as an intermediate stop for the wayward traveler.  You need to be there, with something warm and inviting to help them find their way.  Think of the it as the “Chamber of Commerce” page for your site.

  • Provide a clear message – “Sorry, the page you are looking for doesn’t exist.  Maybe we moved it…”
  • Provide a solution – “You might find what you need in our search engine, or possibly in the other links we’ve provided below.”
  • If all else fails, let them contact you – Perhaps I’m old school, but I believe their should always be an email address associated with a website.  If you’re really worried about getting spammed, have them send to you via a contact us form that has anti-spam measures in place.

WordPress gets it…their latest default theme has most of this built in.  Take a look at my 404 page, by going here.  It is the stock page, with the exception of the gremlin image I added courtesy of our friends at TheOatmeal.com.So what am I missing…what else would the perfect 404 page have?  You know where the comments form is…

WordPress 3.2 – Good, But Wait!

I’m really just posting to test that everything is working in WP 3.2 – I’ve just done the upgrade here as a test.  So far it’s looking good, but you should be aware this is a major level upgrade and also is the point at which WP leaves behind legacy support for older versions of PHP and MySQL – you should have:

  • PHP version 5.2.4 or greater
  • MySQL version 5.0 or greater
This upgrade means that not all hosts are ready (although, if your host isn’t supporting this level, you should change hosts).  It’s also a problem for some dependencies in plugins like FeedWordpress, Tweet This and Facebook Comments.  Fixes are available, but you’ll be cracking open a code editor if you want them right away.
Otherwise, lots of admin changes, promises of speedier performance (I see it…) and a new theme with all the features (I have it turned on, but will be constructing one of my own soon).  Full feature list here…and here is a summary:
  • Refreshed Administrative UI – Admin redesign
  • New Default Theme “Twenty Eleven” – Uses the latest Theme Features
  • Full Screen Editor – Distraction free writing experience
  • Extended Admin Bar – More useful links to control the site
My advice, as always, with this major level release is this: if you aren’t technical, have someone who is do the upgrade just in case.  If you are, do your backups and make sure you meet the minimum requirements for the upgrade.  In general, I suggest you wait a couple weeks and let the plugin makers get caught up, and let the bugs get sorted out by the community.

WordPress on Windows…Why Would You?

Over the past two months I’ve had a look at two different sites running on WordPress that were running on Windows Servers.  In both cases, the sites were having issues, and in both cases, they could not get simple functionality they wanted to work on the servers and ended up moving to Linux hosting.

Does WordPress run on Windows?  Yes, most definitely.  I can attest that I’ve run serveral installations going back to the old 1.x days.  The problem is this: even though you can get a core installation of WP running, there are alot of plugins that simply will not work on a Windows server.

The big thing that comes to mind is this: why even bother messing with a Windows Server?  The WordPress package is built to run on Linux, and even if you don’t want to setup your own server, you can certainly get a competently hosted account in the $3.99 a month range.  There we know the plugins we want will run.

My feeling is this: yes, it runs on Windows, but I have yet to see a situation where I didn’t have some strange problem that took time to diagnose which was related the use of that platform.  If you like chasing phantoms around a server, then maybe this is a project for you.  I personally have better things to do.

So in the future, my general rule is this: no Windows servers for WordPress.  If you want my help, it’s going to move to Linux first.

Updated to WordPress 3.0

Nothing major, just did a quick backup then hit the upgrade button.  While things may have changed significantly in the backend code, there really isn’t much to show you here.

  • WordPress MU (the multiblog variant of WordPress that is used on WordPress.com) is now built into the maintstream code.  Thus endeth the tyranny of MU, a code branch I personally despised.
  • Custom menus make it really easy to create a special nav menu.  I’ve already used this, and it’s a nice feature.
  • They finally let you pick your own username and password for the admin user during installation.  Seems like a little thing, but it’s been a system issue since day one with legions of users forgetting to either change the admin user password or to write it down.
  • Custom Post Types and Custom Taxonomies – I haven’t used either, but I suspect that I will soon.  Both of these are hardcore CMS functions.
  • Scads of new hooks and functions for plugin and theme developers.

The Blogs as Aggregator

Over the past two years, we’ve seen the genie come out of the bag on blogging.  In the good old days if you wanted our content, you came to our blog.  Now, our content is being automatically posted in a bunch of spots, perhaps on Facebook, Google Buzz, Google Reader, and even the headline shows up on Twitter.

Then we throw our participation on those other sites in, and now we’re all over the place.  It’s hard for us to keep up with everything we’re doing, but our readers are at best getting an incomplete picture.

So I pose this question: should not our blog be the place where all of our participation is aggregated? Maybe this site indeed should be “All Things Cahill” as the name implies.

There are several problems:

  • We need to filter for unique content.  The recent Google Buzz launch has shown that cross posting between services can lead to some truly weird looping problems.  Multiple copies of the same post start to show up as Buzz posts to Twitter and Twitter sends to Buzz.  Honestly, I’m surprised some of you haven’t unraveled the fabric of the universe…
  • What about the unique flavor of those services?  Personally, I like the distinct difference between my Twitter posse, the Facebook crowd and my audience here.  They’re all different communities and the idea of tying them all together here might be somehow denigrate that.  For the record, Facebook tends to be my long time friends, the folks I have physically met, whereas Twitter is a more general distribution.
  • Does removing the message from the service remove it from it’s context?  Quite probably, esp. in the situation that my comment is part of the ongoing discussion.

So I ask the question: does it make sense attempt to pull in as much as possible from around the web?  Obviously twitter is here, how about Google Buzz, Foursquare, Yelp, etc.?

Deep down suspect we’d find overall the non-blog content is generally of much lower value.  Share your thoughts…

It’s Time to Rethink the Permalink

The permalink – nothing could be more core to the concept of blogging, and indeed, content management.  In it’s early inception, it was the one link to rule all others.  The problem is that with the advent of microblogging systems like Twitter, the permalink has been devalued and now faces possible extinction.

From Wikipedia:

permalink, or permanent link, is a URL that points to a specific blog or forum entry after it has passed from the front page to the archives. Because a permalink remains unchanged indefinitely, it is less susceptible to link rot. Most modern weblogging and content-syndication software systems support such links. Other types of websites use the term permanent links, but the term permalink is most common within the blogospherePermalink is a portmanteau word made from permanent link. Permalinks are often simply stated so as to be human-readable.

Here’s the problem: while the permalink once was the one true way to identify our content, it’s now going more or less unused, as people instead link to shortened urls, using services like Bit.ly or others which provide character economy in the links that are used around the web.  Hence, with shortened urls in use, it becomes much harder, if not impossible to find mentions and, in fact, discussions, surrounding our content.

I’ve decried over the past year the ongoing diaspora of blog comments.  The discussion continues, but for many bloggers, its moving out of the confines of their blog, into the realm of Twitter, Google Sidewiki, and in the semi-walled garden of Facebook.

It was one thing when there were reliable Trackbacks, but the spammers have all but killed that for us.  Hence the discussion continues, but it often continues without us, the folks that wrote the content in the first place.

So here’s the thought: perhaps it’s time we rethought permalinks.  Instead of existing as a single link, there probably ought to be both a long form (the old permalink) and a short form (shortened url) with the shortened url using the service of the bloggers choice.  Hence the blog software would have knowledge of both the long form (which would be used mostly internally) and the short form, that which would allow us to actually track where our content goes online.  This would further enable us to pull the discussions surrounding our content back into our pages where it ought to be…

Hence a blog which currently might have comments and trackbacks separately identified, might actually list the origin of a comment, such as “Via Twitter” or “Via Facebook” and actually thread the follow ups, and potentially direct replies from our blog to those comments back to the platform they came from as well.

The key concept here is that the blogger must control the initial shortened url, because the url shortening service becomes utterly key to our solution.  That service, like so many today, could provide us with an aggregated comment feed via rss, analytics data about where our shortened url was used, by who and also combine the data with the usage of our long form permalink.

What are your thoughts?

WordPress 2.8.6 Released and a 2.9 Preview

I got the notice last night that WordPress 2.8.6 was released to fix a pair of security holes.  So I hopped right into the admin console from my Iphone and in 2 minutes, it was updated.  If you have a WordPress installation, I urge you to update right away as well.

This will almost certainly be the last release prior to the much anticipated release of 2.9 which is our next major (feature related) release.  Aaron Brazell had a great preview on his site yesterday, and since I’m not currently running the beta, I’ll leave the full on feature review to him.  Here are the major bits to expect:

  • Enhanced image handling – scaling, cropping, and thumbnail sizing on a per picture basis.
  • Trash Can – this really goes back to the old notion we saw in newspaper editorial systems, delete doesn’t really delete, it just hides.  This will come in handy.
  • The_post_image – if you’ve ever tried to add an image to an excerpt of a post you will know why this is important.
  • oEmbed – video support, which I’ve had for years using Vipers Video Tag Plugin.
  • Custom Post Type – this is one of those CMS type functions.  It’ll make my life easier, although honestly in the past I’ve been able to make categories do my bidding with little trouble in WordPress CMS settings.
  • Comment Meta – I have no idea what to think about this one.
  • Metadata API – Another feature I’m sure I’ll use, but currently I can’t think of anything I’d use it for.  I guess this is like custom fields for everything, not just limited to posts.
  • Theme System Modification – this will allow developers to work on one theme, while real users look at another.  This has been needed for some time.
  • Rel=Canonical Optimization – seems like a little thing, but it will help a lot with SEO.

Check out the preview at Technosailor.com for the full scoop.

WordPress 2.8.5 Released

A new WordPress release came out last night. Unlike the previous, this is what they are calling “a hardening release”, i.e. it is generally designed to make the code base more secure, but doesn’t fix any known vulnerabilities.  As with all minor level releases, I suggest you update as soon as possible, if for no other reason than to stay current.

From their blog:

  • A fix for the Trackback Denial-of-Service attack that is currently being seen.
  • Removal of areas within the code where php code in variables was evaluated.
  • Switched the file upload functionality to be whitelisted for all users including Admins.
  • Retiring of the two importers of Tag data from old plugins.

We can expect to see 2.9, the next major level release within around the end of the month, certainly before mid-November.  That release will supposedly center on enhancements to image handling features.

(For those casual readers, I should probably explain that I develop sites daily with WordPress, and have for many years…hence I think my opinion on matters WordPress should have some level of importance to you…)

The Death Knell of Paid Posts

Yesterday the Federal Trade Commission issued it’s first change the policy on endorsements in over 30 years.  From this point forward, if you accept any form of payment for a post, you need to disclose it.  PCWorld.com sums it up:

Bottom Line: If you receive gifts, money or any other type of compensation from a product manufacturer or service provider you have to disclose it.

For the record, it’s always been my policy that if there’s any possibility of conflict of interest, I disclose, as do others.  Obviously, I work for Namemedia Inc. and when I write about our sites or services, I am going to be slightly biased, but here, the voice is mine and I write about what I want.

A month or so ago, my wife asked me to write a post about a company she had a good service experience with, honestly I forget who it was.  I turned her down…much to my later chagrin.  I did offer to give her a login so that she might faun over them under her own byline.  The truth is that I couldn’t recommend a business I had no experience with, even if my own wife told me to.  Yes, the view from the dog house is quite lovely this time of year.

The timing for this ruling could not have been better, coming right after the Izeafest show in Orlando, which is a celebration of the sponsored tweet.  I’ll make the statement right here and now, sponsored tweets will be one of the things that will kill Twitter.  That and the inevitable move to niche real-time web services.  The minute you begin to appear as not genuine in social media, you’re on a down hill slide.

It’s just sad that the FTC had to actually put into regulations that which we, as bloggers, marketers, etc. should have known all along.

What is the next Wave?

Google Wave - a chance for us to rethink Social Media?
Google Wave - a chance for us to rethink Social Media?

For some time, I’ve been looking for the next compelling thing in social media sites. For that next development that transforms the way we interact, that re-envisions forums, chat, photo galleries, articles, etc; in fact a redefinition of the way in which we communicate online altogether.

For the past couple years, I’ve watch as vBulletin, my favorite forum software, basically did minor incremental releases, remaining essentially the way it was in 2001.  Wordpress has done better, yet still, the fundamental blog/cmslite experience remains pretty much as it was 4 years ago.  Photo gallery software, chat, etc. all remain pretty much as they were when they burst on the scene.

The user experience on most sites now is very segmented.  Comments are in one spot, while forum posts over here.  Most sites  don’t integrate chat, as it tends to remove us from the page view model on which our revenue streams are so often based.

We’ve patched together separate systems, and in virtually all cases, the seams are showing.  Clear lines of demarcation block logical points of information transfer.  Most of what happens isn’t real time, or anything close to it.  It’s a post then wait and click refresh experience for most of what we do.

That’s the point of entry for Google Wave, the new open source project that launched in private beta today.  It has real time communications, chat has both private/public components, that can take on the threaded view of a forum with real time updates, that can be presented as a forum, or a blog, or whatever you imagine.

You see the important thing here for a developer is that they’ve built the basic tools, but we can add whatever we want via their api.  To demonstrate this, they added Google maps integration.  Yet that bit could be a video, or even better a live video stream or a recorded application view (think Webex presentation), live photo gallery, or all of them.  All of which can be manipulated and edited real time by multiple users.

So what is this Google Wave, really?  It’s opportunity for us to FINALLY break out of the box, to really do something new and different, to for once rethink the way we do our sites.

I can’t wait…

Check out the abridged version of the video from the I/O conference to get a taste of what I’m talking about.