Apple Continues to Fade as Skeuomorphic Design Dies

Besides inspiring many otherwise sane people to part with vast sums of money for below standard products produced under highly questionable ethics, Apple’s rise to power in recent years has also had a phenomenal impact on graphic and web design.

White minimalist graphic design never truly dies but Apple’s reflective table, curved edges and 3D shading rocketed it back into high end vogue, in no time anyone selling anything had it sitting on a white reflective surface with glossy shine digitised onto the product itself.

Apple's glossy surface design styleThe reflective white surface and glossy shine; occasionally a black surface and background was used but minimal white was the brand image and graphic design trick that stuck, and before long those glossy reflections were everywhere.

The style caught on very quickly with tech gadgets and products, while the Photoshop gloss was similarly digitised on to all kinds of products, logos and social media icons. The approach is called skeuomorphism, and it basically means trying to make a flat 2D image look like it’s 3D or “real”; the picture above isn’t a digital rendering of the iPhone design, it’s a digital rendering of the iPhone in a lit studio sitting on a table albeit in an entirely unlikely way.

In their software, Apple pushed the design style even further, turning ebook stores into bookshelves, giving calendars a leather-bound filofax kind of vibe and providing sound recording software with an old school tape look. Whilst the general opinion amongst a lot of professional designers seemed to be that this was rather naff and made the software feel old fashioned or cheap contrasted against the very modern industrial look of the products themselves, plenty of everyday users quite liked it.

Apple's skeuomorphic iBooks designCool or crass? The iBooks store, one of Apples heavily skeuomorphed graphic designs, and much derided even by Apple adoring designers

Largely designers dislike the approach because it is incredibly uninspiring, unoriginal, un-designed and deviates away from making the software easier to use in favour of making it look “nice”. All this sums up some common criticisms from Apple detractors;

1. All they care about is making things look pretty, functionality is often poor in comparison to competitor products.

2. Apple is not an innovation powerhouse or even very creative and steal all their best ideas; tablets were first produced by Microsoft 6 years before iPad, MP3 players were out for 4 years prior to iPod, Apple made existing products look more pretty, called it a revolution and everyone swooned.

So while the heavy skeuomorphics became a minor embarrassment  the more restrained approach used in branding and advertising had a wide impact in graphic and web design. Drop shadows, glossy surfaces, shading and lighting sources popped up everywhere to make entirely unreal objects like websites look like they had some kind of real world physical presence; a brushed chrome sheet for menu bars, three dimensional top lit buttons for links and white glossy tables for any products to sit on.

Since Steve Jobs passed away a lot of change has been happening at Apple though, they’ve released a series of decidedly average (iPhone 4S and 5 were basically just minor upgrades to the 4) and definitively bad (their attempt at mapping software) products,  obsoleted things less than a year old (iPad 4 releasing the second iPad 3 sales had maxed out) and had all kinds of dirty laundry aired about treatment of staff in factories and impact on the environment.

Of course, Apple are still colossally profitable and sitting on top of the tech/web industry, but cracks are appearing in that glossy surface. Primary competitor Samsung’s long investment in challenging them is paying off with the Galaxy smartphone outselling the iPhone and a slowly dawning realisation amongst consumers that Samsung tablets carry a far more impressive spec than the iPad as well.

Just as Apple’s rise saw widespread adoption of their graphic design style, so their potentially looming demise is seeing the opposite happen; user interface design is a hot topic, and designers are fed up with trying to make a purely digital thing somehow look like something in the real world when that doesn’t make it any easier to use. The response is an approach getting called pure digital; no drop shadows, wood textures or tape reels to be found here, it’s all about solid colours on basic shapes forming simple geometry.

The specific piece of graphic and user interface design that has perhaps defined pure digital best underlines the rule of everything being cyclical and takes some revenge for that tablet steal; Microsoft Windows 8 is dividing opinions in terms of functionality on desktops, but it’s a beautiful piece of pure digital design and perfectly suited to the miniaturised screens of smartphones and tablets.

The Windows 8 approach to pure digital graphic designThe Windows 8 “Metro” design style; an instant classic that defines the new pure digital approach

It’s clean, unfussy and endlessly adaptable to different screen sizes and orientations, really underlining it as a perfect design approach for the array of web and software viewing products in the marketplace. Designers are rapidly jumping on it, with web design forums buzzing about designing things in a grid and getting rid of bevels and drop shadows in favour of crisp, solid colour squares, circles and rectangles.

Just before 2012 ended Apple announced that they were dropping skeuomorphics from their own software and interface designs and a look around their website and marketing materials currently reveals a distinct dulling down of the drop shadows and gloss. Of course it leaves them in a tricky spot though, they either have to come up with something entirely new or they have to follow Microsoft’s design lead, long derided as a company that produces ugly and unimaginative design that Apple had left in its wake.

What does all this mean to those of us without multi-billion dollar tech companies or Internet MP3 stores? It means it’s time to start re-evaluating our own graphic and web designs. The more tasteful end of skeuomorphics is still champion online and the preferred look of the majority of clients, but soon it will start to edge out of date. And as our websites get viewed on an ever increasing array of screen shapes and sizes, we all need to start thinking about when the time is right to make the jump into a purer graphic design that gives customers the cleanest, most functional and most adaptable user experience.

2013 web predictions and the confusing Google zoo

The web is currently awash with various expert gurus making their “predictions” for 2013. It’s remarkably easy to be an Internet guru these days, well over 50% of the predictions I’ve seen have been as vacuous as “mobile will grow this year” or “social will continue to be popular”; look out Nostradamus…

I think the one thing we can be absolutely certain of in 2013 is that Google’s continued tweaking of their search algorithm (previous blog here on Google Penguin, Panda, EMD etc.) will continue to confuse many of these self proclaimed Internet gurus and in turn the many believers who blindly follow them will also find themselves rather lost.

Web forums are packed with people calling themselves professional SEOs doling out truly awful advice to all kinds of unfortunate business owners just trying to keep their search positioning healthy. Comments I see all the time are things like “Google declared war on business” or “SEO is such a complex science now”. Granted, for certain search terms SEO is very complex; we’re well familiar with this as two of the most competitive keyphrases around are ‘web design’ and ‘search engine optimisation’, but to the vast majority of site owners, SEO remains a fairly simple thing.

Google have been making these updates to remove cheats, duplicates and spam from their system. The decision to name a couple of them after pandas and penguins has led to all kinds of increasingly ridiculous debate and rumours about crushing changes to come variously called Pony, Zebra and a whole menagerie of other creatures. Some are real, some aren’t, none of them are terribly crushing to anyone other than the cheats.

A lot of these puzzled SEO gurus are puzzled because they built their services around SEO short cuts; spamming article sites, directories, forums and blogs with totally irrelevant links, using software to auto post hundreds of links all over the place and so on.

Such activities do not create a quality Internet of websites or a quality search engine experience.

Google likes to do well by it’s customers, and people forget that Google’s customers are not website owners, they’re web surfers, so adjusting the algorithm to kick these cheat-built websites down the list is a good result for the customers. Tweaking is ongoing (you can stay up to date on the excellent SEOmoz website here), in places some good quality sites have lost positions and some poor ones have popped up at the top of results, but the work is getting there, the short cuts are fading away and the keening wail of cheats no longer prospering is reverberating around the Interwebs!

So what should a website owner do these days?

On-page SEO on your own website is still really critical; it’s well worth getting an experienced web copywriter to do all your text and make sure your web designer/SEO has filled out the hidden tags in website code called alt and meta tags. Make sure you are using the best possible keywords, and consider adding that blog you’ve been considering and updating it with interesting stuff regularly.

Off-page SEO is where most of the confusion reigns. In the past, simply having lots of links from third party sites was good for your search results. The big change is that now only links from high quality sites relevant to your website have any value.

That’s really it, that’s what’s thrown all these SEO experts into puzzled despair.

So, if you want to help your SEO, third party link building is still a great way to do it but you have to make it relevant and high quality;

Build reciprocal links with suppliers, partners and clients, often these will drive people to your website as well as helping SEO

Be part of forum and blog communities; find high quality blogs and forums (they’ll finish high in search results) that are relevant to your business. Start hanging out there for ten minutes each day, ask questions, answer questions, chat with others, fill out the autosignature with a link to your website, very quickly you have hundreds of links from a relevant and quality site. Same idea with blogs but using the comments feature most offer, don’t be tempted to do the “great info thanks for posting” cheat; it’s called fluff, it isn’t welcome on quality sites and will ultimately get you booted off them.

Understand dofollow and nofollow; links can be labelled “nofollow” in the web code, this tells Google that the link is not endorsed by the website, for example all links on Facebook are nofollow; they have no control over what links are posted so they don’t want to endorse them , the nofollow label informs Google of that. Many high quality forums and blogs are also nofollow; you can tell which from the HTML code which is painstakingly slow, or there are a couple of free downloads around which highlight links in different colours for you; SEOmoz’s SEO Toolbar is a good one for Firefox and Chrome browsers, and has some other useful features too. Obviously, dofollow is more beneficial for SEO, however it makes sense to build a balanced amount of nofollow as well; Google is looking for third party links to be natural, if you have 3000 dofollow links and 0 nofollow links it’s obviously not natural.

Offer guest posts to good blogs; every business sector has some high quality blogs, find out what the best blogs in your market are then offer to write them a guest post about a unique subject you are expert in, and request you be allowed a dofollow link to your website at the end of it.

Don’t be tempted! There are many SEO temptations, here are a few you might come across online;

  • “1000 backlinks for $10!”; the 1000 links will all be from appalling link farm sites with no relevance and no quality, there is no quick way to build quality links.
  • “Article spinning software turns one article into hundreds!”; you can build backlinks posting articles around the web on quality sites, but the articles have to be unique, spinning software mixes a few words up to turn a single article into lots of “unique” articles. It used to work really easily, it currently just barely works with the best software, soon it won’t work at all, there is no quick way to write unique content.
  • “Submit to over 500 directories with one form”; this used to work too, today getting links on 500 free, unedited and totally unrelated directories will do you no good whatsoever, there is still no quick way to build high quality links.

The greatest point of confusion out there simply seems to be that there is no way of fiddling the system anymore, every SEO now has to work in a reputable and high quality way rather than undercutting the quality providers by using cheat techniques.

So, my number one 2013 prediction is that the SEO whining from 2012 will continue for quite some time, don’t be part of the banshee wail, or get taken in by expert assertions that SEO is dead or anti small business or anything else; keep it high quality and you need never worry.

I built my first website 13 years ago whilst learning web design, within a few years as I got to learn SEO as well, based on quality on-page copywriting and reciprocal link building with relevant sites it hit the Google front page for a range of keyword searches. Ten years later it has dropped a sum total of three places having had no changes made to its SEO whatsoever over the years and thousands of algorithm changes (it’s just a hobby site). The amazing SEO secret behind this success? I didn’t cheat, I just stuck to the essentials, everyone else on that front page with me is a corporate sized company, national newspaper or Wikipedia, so I can deal with losing a few places, one weekend I’ll do some work on it and probably make those places up pretty easily.

At SDG Web Design we’ve always focused on the SEO essentials that are always a good thing as well, we bundle quality copywriting and keyword analysis with every web design build so that all our clients get that critical on-page SEO in place from the start. Recently we’ve begun expanding our services to improve on-page for competitive search sectors and we’re working out some cost effective ways to support off-page methods like link building, which can be time consuming, as well. Give us a call at any time to discuss what we can do for your site!

 

Starting an Online Business Part 2; Internet Marketing

Getting a fully functional website and email set up is the first stage of getting a business online, next you have to think about letting people know it’s there, unsurprisingly, the best way to do that is online with Internet marketing.

A common misconception, or simply unconsidered thing for new website owners, is assuming that once the website is built it will automatically be just in the right place on Google searches and have flood of traffic coming in. Unfortunately that’s an impossibility, there are thousands of companies in the world offering the same services, they can’t all be ideally positioned on search engines, so that makes your first Internet marketing investment…

Search engine optimisation

Search sites like Google dominate the driving of most traffic online, leading to the practice of search engine marketing. There are a few approaches to this but the key essential to initially focus on should always be SEO.

This is a simple enough concept often confused by web design “gurus” trying to sell things online. basically, you want to make your site look attractive to the mathematical algorithms search engines like Google work around. In the most basic terms, if you have a plumbing website, you have to make sure the word plumbing is used plenty of times throughout the site so that Google knows it’s a site about plumbing; it becomes a “keyword” for that business website.

Some web design companies package SEO with the website build but most do not, or offer only an extremely basic level of SEO, requiring you to employ an expert to get things moving. Naturally, at Smart Domain Group it is built into our web design packages, but you can still get the most of it by doing some advance research and if you want to keep the costs low when starting up you need to be prepared to build on the foundations laid yourself.

Any business owner should be able to draw up a list of likely keywords describing their business; the primary services, location and industry specific terms for example. Given this starting point your SEO can then research which of these terms are the most popularly used in web searches and how competitive they are, helping highlight a shorter list of keywords to focus on.

The copy on the site should then be updated to build a good level of keyword density (too little won’t be noticed, too much will look like trying to cheat the system) and add a bunch of hidden labels that search engines see but web surfers don’t, such as text labels for images, layout tables and so on. Once the website is optimised the site can be submitted to Google and should get a few reasonable search positions on some of the keywords.

The ongoing aspect is link building or “backlinking”; search engines work out how good your site is based on how many other sites link to it and the quality of those sites. You can wait around and hope that people link to you which is the bizarre advice sometimes passed around by those online gurus, in the early days at least you really need to give things a push to get them started.

Some techniques might be swapping links with key suppliers and clients, spending regular time on a good quality web forum about your market and using the autosignature tool to post a link every time you post a comment, you could also offer to write a few guest articles for good blogs in your business sector, adding a link to your website at the end. Over time these kinds of activities build you lots of quality links from other relevant websites and you rank up in search results accordingly.

Web forums are awash with people over complicating search optimisation, offering long out of date advice, or “500 links for $10” deals and so on, they won’t help; if you don’t have time to do all this link building yourself, ask your SEO provider to do some for you. Google is very focused on removing SEO cheats and shortcuts and are mercilessly banishing such websites from listings, but there are still lots of providers taking advantage of how little most website owners understand SEO.

Social networks

The second key ongoing effort is still link building, but of a different kind. The above links are primarily about building Google’s awareness of your site, so it ranks your website high and people can find you easily on search listings. You can also build links for the traditional reason; so that potential customers can find you directly, and this is where social networks like Facebook and Twitter are increasingly coming into things.

All social networks are free, but they do demand regular attention and some effort to understand properly and benefit from. Each is a little different and better suited to different businesses; Twitter is good for companies who have lots of fast moving news happening, Linked In is good for business to business services, YouTube is great if your business can generate entertaining video content. You have to give each of them consideration on their merits and benefits to you, and take a look at what your competition is doing.

All social networks vary in the best approaches but a couple of key points to consider are that you need to;

Post content to your social networks at least daily, a post which is a few hours old on Twitter or Facebook disappears down the timeline people view, so most of the time, most of your audience will not see most of your posts. If you post once a week hardly anyone will notice you even exist.

Engage in conversation, the idea of social networks is to be social, if someone posts a comment on your page, reply to it, give potential and current customers a dialogue with a real person, it gives your brand a personality people can connect with.

Don’t be a pimp, endlessly tweeting about your services doesn’t make exciting content for any audience; would you want to be friends with a plumber who posted every day on your timeline that he can fix burst pipes? No, but you might be friends with one who posts occasional DIY tips or comic photos of “weird things we’ve found in drains”. On social networks you have to give people something they want to share, give people a laugh or something useful, it gives the brand even more personality and builds trust and familiarity, so when someone does have a burst pipe, they think about that funny plumber guy on Facebook and ask for a quote.

Think of it like long running TV ad campaigns; often they have little to do with the key product being sold, the focus is on characters, atmosphere, things that make people feel connected to the brand, social networks require the same kind of mindset, rather than a typical small business approach of listing products and great prices in print ads.

Of course, offer up enough share-able content and no one minds if there’s an occasional reminder of the website, core services or special offers, and that’s where you can start building your links that people will want to follow.

Internet marketing evolves

Marketing techniques are constantly changing, five years ago social networks barely existed and you really could buy a thousand for $10 and improve your search engine position; things change over time.

In the immediate future though, things look quite clear, SEO will continue to focus increasingly on quality, and it will begin to incorporate “social authority”; evaluating how outstanding you are on social networks and applying that to search engine results. It’s already starting to happen with Twitter and Google+ and underlines the importance of these two aspects of Internet marketing.

As with the web design itself, finding a provider who can do it all is ideal, but to stay cost effective in the early days of a business it helps to cover some bases yourself, especially things like social networking which really requires no special skills, just an understanding of your potential audience.

There are details to these techniques; a good press release can really build great links for you, a few quality recognised directories can boost search and there are all sorts of emerging social networks like Pinterest that companies are just starting to work out how to use to market themselves. Focus on the essentials at first though, get optimised so you’re appearing somewhere in the search results, link build to improve that and go social with the big names like Facebook, Twitter, Linked In or Google+ to bring in a second stream of traffic so you aren’t over reliant on Google alone.

Beyond the Internet!

Finally, of course, think real world; put that web address on vans, business cards, letterhead, invoices and everything else, it should be a hub for everything. People can check bits of information like your address or a price list or service by looking at your website rather than taking up time on the phone answering mundane questions, and if you want to encourage more phone calls, get the site written in a way which does so; a business card doesn’t do any encouragement, but it can lead to a website that does.

It sounds like a lot to take on, and it is a significant investment of money and time, but once you’re set up, it’s all benefits and much lower ongoing costs that can make huge differences to small businesses. Please do drop us a line to learn more about the ways we can help you with the web design and ongoing marketing and SEO here at Smart Domain Group, our services are built around small to medium sized businesses!

Starting an Online Business Part 1; the Website

Today, every business needs an online presence and web design if it is to stay healthy, with so many traditional routes of advertising like Yellow Pages continuing to disappear from usage as people turn to Google to find just about everything.

If you haven’t done it before though, getting online can feel a big and complex task that is all too easy to put off. In truth, it isn’t all that difficult with the right web design company to guide you through it and unlike Yellow Pages, which updates once per year, you can get your website online and make adjustments to it anytime you like.

Everything starts with the web design itself. Your website should form the hub of any online effort, like a central brochure everything can refer to and which in turn can refer to everything online and offline such as printed materials or social networks. Any good web designer will help you through the process of putting a site together, but it pays dividends to put some time in yourself in the early stages to help things along and get the most out of it;

 
Have a look at your competition online, see what they’re doing and how you can do it better

Make a note of anything you see on other websites which you think might work well for you

Consider all the information you should put into your web design such as core services, company history, contact details and news or special offers

Consider things like your unique selling points and key skills; your web designer probably won’t understand the critical things in your business so it’s up to you to explain them

Collect together photos and logos the designer will need to build the website


Whilst you’re doing this, meet with a few web design companies to see what they have to offer. Ask to take a look at previous work and drop an email to some of their customers for feedback on the quality of the web design and service; it is worth paying a little extra for the better product in the long run!

Prices can really vary for websites, and often hide some small print details; a budget site might cost just a few hundred pounds but won’t include things like copywriting, web hosting, search engine optimisation or ongoing support, which is a bit like having a stack of leaflets with no writing on them and no way to distribute them.

More comprehensive packages tend to start around the £1000 mark and upwards, however many companies offer single page or three page web design packages for a lower price which allows you to get a foot in the door to expand upon next time you have some money available. Some web design companies also offer credit or monthly payments so you can get the website you need set up straight away but spread the cost out.

Financially, it’s also very important to establish ongoing costs; domain names, web hosting and e-mail accounts are all things which have to be paid for on an annual subscription basis. A cheap website set up cost may be hiding an expensive annual subscription fee, make sure you take this into account working out the best deal.

There are a few key things you should look for in web design packages, of course you can buy them all separately from different suppliers, but if you can put it all under one roof from the off then it makes life easier while you find your feet;

Copywriting; yes, you could write your own copy, but have you really any idea how to write information that is attractive to human visitors and also attractive to search engines? Probably not, it’s highly specialist and a web design company with a dedicated expert copywriter is a real bonus.

Hosting; this is quite simply space on the Internet where your website will be stored so that people around the world can access it, without hosting you’re not online.

E-mail and domain name; most hosting packages also include a professional website address (domain name) and at least a few e-mail accounts.

Support and updates; you may need occasional updates to your website so it’s useful to have some free maintenance time bundled with web design packages, and make sure you know what the hourly costs are once you go beyond that. If you need regular updates then it’s good to get a CMS website (content management system); this will make it easy for you to do updates yourself, but typically costs more to set up.

SEO; search engine optimisation is a really big one, without it you just won’t appear in search engine listings, but it’s very specialist and can get expensive, find out if your set up costs includes any SEO work and what it will cost to get some done.

There are plenty of good packages around which don’t include all these things, but it really simplifies the process for a first timer especially putting everything under one roof; check out our own web design packages and you’ll see we include the lot for our clients.

So, with all that in mind, you’re ready to get a website set up, but that isn’t all there is to getting a business online, and in a future blog we’ll look at marketing and promotion through search engines, social networks and other web resources.

 

Javascript Explained What Does It Do?

Javascript is all about making web design more dynamic; whilst HTML and CSS have classically focused on laying out the page and content for you to look at, javascript made it possible to start adding in things you could interact with, it made web pages a living thing rather than a static display and integrated cleanly and easily into HTML pages.

Some people call it a toy code which just generates silly little widgets like a current time display, and early on this was how it got marketed to people. Web designers who knew HTML but didn’t want to learn anything else could pick up pre-written javascript code to create all kinds of little gimmicks on websites, however over time it has shown itself to be extremely useful and seamless to integrate with HTML, Flash and many other languages. This has led to it’s place as one of the most commonly used web design and programming languages on the web.

Some classic examples of Javascript usage include;

Simple animation of page elements such as fading a picture in and out or drop down and sliding website menus

Responding to clicks or mouseovers, such as changing the background image on click, zooming a picture on mouseover or creating a lightbox effect on picture galleries

Making it possible for all kinds of simple games, music and video to be played on a webpage instead of forcing you to download the files and play them on your PC software; things like Pac-Man, Minesweeper and chess are all available as javascript games

Gathering data; Google analytics, an add on to web designs to provide detailed traffic stats, runs largely on javascript, gathering data from your website and presenting it in your Google account, whilst Facebook website plug ins provide two way data presenting bits of Facebook on your site and gathering info on how people on your site interact with the plug in

Sign up forms and website log ins, including auto-complete functions

Updating of parts of a web design without refreshing the page, such as live sports results or stock market tickers

 

Javascript gets used in numerous other ways as well, such as within PDFs or numerous desktop widgets, its ability to respond to things in real time is one of its greatest uses and most often exploited features.

Many other programming languages have grown out of javascript or acted as add-ons to it, expanding what the basic language was capable of over time. Processing.js expands on graphics capabilities, CoffeeScript makes it more concise, Quby links javascript and Ruby to enable game playing, Phype links javascript and PHP, while Ajax links it with XML. From an early image issue as a gimmicky toy, javascript has grown to become the glue which binds a very expansive range of programming languages and technologies together in website design.

Winter special offers at SDG Web Design

Our Autumn giveaway went so well we’ve decided to carry it into winter, so for anyone wanting a new website from our Websmart range of packaged solutions, you can get a third off of our regular prices and free CMS software and set up worth an extra £300.

Websmart is the ideal web design package for any business looking to get established and succeed online, with our team of experts providing you with;

A modern, professional and uniquely designed website

Bespoke copywriting to persuade visitors to give you the call

A year of hosting, support and emails (renewable annually from just £99 per year)

Expert search engine optimisation to drive you to the top of web searches

Domain name purchase and set up

Detailed visitor web statistics

High quality professional stock photography if required

 

And of course we provide a full range of ongoing Internet and search engine marketing services if you require them or want to focus more of your business online over time.

We’ve created websites for an incredibly wide range of businesses, from sole traders and small businesses like tradesmen to pharmaceutical companies, industrial designers and international events. Websmart packages can be bought at a wide range of pages so the package can fit any size or complexity of business, and because every site is custom designed and written to fit the individual client, it always works.

Our CMS (Content Management System), typicall offered for £300 but currently free, is an incredible money saver long term as well; it allows you or your team to make simple changes to text and images yourselves without any need for web designer fees. The simple to use software means it’s easy to run a blog, news post, or constantly update your portfolio of work as often as you like.

So why not give your business the gift of a beautiful new website this Christmas?! We can even provide a range of ways to pay; split is 50/50 into a deposit and final payment on completion, or sign up for our monthly payment plans and have it all paid off after a year.

We’ve created over 3000 websites over the pat decade and are proud to offer a high end service at an affordable price that makes Websmart the best value package in the UK; give us a call to learn more!

Is Google+ any good for small businesses?

Google+, the search engine’s response to Facebook, has survived over a year and made it through the 400 million member mark which is quite an acheivement in a short space of time and an already crowded marketplace, but is it a phenomenon largely alien to the UK and is it a social network with any real value to small businesses?

Some of the most regular articles we see about Google+ use words like “ghost town” a lot, with suggestions that 400 million may have signed up but most of them posted once and never returned, Google themselves admit that active users are closer to 100 million, but that’s still a number it took Facebook many years to reach and very close to numbers on Twitter.

More interesting is that whilst many people in the UK have no idea what Google+ is, it still receives over 10% of our traffic to social networks, so it isn’t entirely unknown here, but perhaps what matters the most to UK businesses is more of a hidden feature; using Google+ is good for your SEO.

As you may expect Google designed the site so that it would perform well in web searches, if the same article is posted across all the social networks then searched for it’s no surprise that the Google version will typically come up, equally if a link is posted on the network and users “+1″ it or share it around that pushes the link up in SEO search results as well.

Quite simply, any popular link or content on Google+ is going to be popular on Google search as well, and that’s an opportunity ripe for small businesses to take advantage of, so;

Sign up for Google+

They allow businesses to have their own pages and it takes as long as any other social network to set up, not all that long.

Keyword optimise

Treat it just like your website in SEO terms; you want good, professional, welcoming content targeted at your market, but you want it full of useful SEO keywords as well.

Make friends

On Google+, that means getting into people’s “circles”; users arrange all their contacts into customisable groups eg friends/family/work/business, getting into those groups means they’ll be digesting your content.

Use it

Social networks are for social beings, give it some time every day and make sure you “+1″ plenty of things, just using the system makes you more visible on it.

 

Like anything new, it takes a while to get used to, but if you’re finding social networks like Twitter or Facebook don’t work for your small business and you want to try something else, or they do work for you and you want to expand that, Google+ is clearly worth taking a look at. Even if the direct social aspects of it don’t lift your business, the SEO affect could, some researchers found that around 70 +1s on a piece of content boosted visitors by 20%, which is pretty cool for something that need only take up a little time each day.

Hire the Right Web Designer; Tips for Spotting the Cowboys

Like any industry, web design is full of talented individuals and companies offering high quality services to their clients, but there’s also a fair share of cowboys out there and a few who just don’t know quite what they’re doing. Fortunately, with a little heads up it’s pretty easy to identify the wheat from the chaff.

One of the most common mistakes made, especially by small business owners new to the web, are the “don’t know what they’re doing” group. Commonly these are students, recent web design graduates and part timers who may have picked up a few basics of web design and decide to drum up some money by undercutting the rest of the market.

Quite often they will offer websites that normally would cost around £1000 for prices like £300; for a cash strapped small business owner it sounds a great deal, and the end result might even look quite good, unfortunately it is unlikely to have any kind of search engine optimisation, you will have to write your own copy or put up with poorly written content, and there are more than a few stories out there about people who simply disappear halfway through building a site because they lose interest in being a web designer.

Most are easily spotted; they won’t have a proper company set up, will take cash payments, will only supply a mobile phone number to contact them on and so forth. They’ll assure you these are all good things that are saving you money when in fact they are just a semi-professional.

Far worse are the second group, the cowboys of the industry, who may well give themselves away with mobile numbers and a lack of an official office but may also have a true company structure.

These web design businesses will simply look to charge as much as possible for the lowest quality work possible. The portfolio websites they show you may not even be their own work, if they are they will be showpiece sites and nothing like what you will eventually receive. You will definitely be writing your own copy, definitely won’t get any kind of SEO in the deal (even though you might still get charged for it, it’s very hard for the average person to know whether a site has been search engine optimised or not) and customer service will probably be terrible during the design process and considerably worse afterwards.

It’s common for the blame for this kind of work to fall on cheap international freelancers, but really it can be anyone, anywhere offering a dodgy product.

The smart way to avoid either situation is simply to look at previous clients. Any reputable web designer will have plenty of previous client websites for you to look at, and nothing’s stopping you from contacting them direct and asking them what their experience was.

Naturally, we think it’s always best to go with a larger company who has a team of specialists who will provide you with every web service you could possibly need, and companies of our size always display plenty of previous clients in their portfolios. Smaller businesses and solo freelancers may not have such a big portfolio but will typically go to considerable lengths to make it easy for new business clients to get feedback on the quality of their work.

Like any major business purchase, take your time to consider all the options and apply the same common sense you would buying anything else; would you buy that critical £1000 tool you need from a teenager offering it for £300? Probably not; if it sounds too good to be true it probably is!

What is Pay Per Click Advertising?

Increasingly the Internet is evolving into an advertising fuelled medium. Most users expect web services to come free of charge (for example Facebook, YouTube, etc.), so the web based companies providing these services collect revenues by selling advertising space.

For many years banner advertising was the only real option, with advertisers paying to place an advertising image onto websites that would run for a set length of time or until a set number of people had seen it. Unsurprisingly, just like printed media the best websites for advertising were soon unaffordable for smaller advertisers and small websites had trouble finding advertisers without a focused sales team to do the work, but surely this exciting new medium could come up with something better?

Pay Per Click (or PPC) advertising was the solution that began to evolve.

At first, PPC was just a different way to charge for advertising that offered advertisers a better deal and more flexibility over how much they were spending. The advertiser would agree to pay a set amount of money for every time the advert was clicked which meant they weren’t wasting money paying to display the advert to people who may not even be interested in it, they only paid for those that were.

It also meant that websites couldn’t lie about the amount and type of traffic they were receiving; all that mattered was the number of clicks, and those with limited budgets would simply agree a deal to display for a low number of clicks.

This democratised web advertising considerably for advertisers, but it did little for those websites who wanted to find advertising revenues easily.

Systems such as Google’s Adwords moved things even further; Adwords is a simple system where advertisers pay for PPC advertising on websites relevant to their target market (selected by analysis of keywords on the website). Websites of any size can sign up to display advertising, inserting a small piece of code into their HTML which pulls up adverts relevant to their market (again, decided by matching keywords on the website to keywords in the adverts).

Straight away, websites of any size could quickly get advertising relevant to their audience, and advertisers of any size could get affordable advertising campaigns delivered directly to the right kind of audience and only ever pay for the adverts which generated a click.

Today the system is highly refined and widely trusted, to such an extent that many others have copied it (such as Facebook) and even quite big players utilise it; Myspace and YouTube both use the Adwords system in addition to their regular banner sales activities. Advertisers can now select which keyword interests they want to advertise to and bid against other advertisers, with those offering the highest per click rate getting the most high profile and frequent exposure.

Unsurprisingly some keywords that are very popular demand very high per click bids to make using the system worthwhile, but there are also plenty of keyword options out there that can be picked up for peanuts.

There are also some accepted cheats to the system; some advertisers use PPC purely as a branding opportunity, designing their adverts not to generate clicks, but to raise awareness of their products and services. If no clicks are generated the campaign costs nothing but you still get your brand and products displayed to hundreds or even thousands of relevant web users.

The whole thing may sound like a dream come true to many, but there is an art to seeing results and in plenty of industries it simply doesn’t work very well. We’d encourage anyone considering web advertising to give it a try though, it’s easy to limit your financial exposure and get a feel for how well it could work for your business, and we can offer design and copywriting services on pay per click advertising to help you make the most of the opportunity.

Evolution of Web Design; Today and Tomorrow

In the current age clean and simple is still greatly favoured by web designers, but little by little people are rediscovering the power of colour and images. Well designed websites today are rich with colours, often beautifully balanced into a true piece of branding rather than just mushing as much together as possible.

big image barber shop websiteNot just for design sites; faster download speeds and simpler coding mean even a small business like a trendy barber shop can deliver a big image and visually impactful website design

One of the lead trends of the last couple of years has been the use of a huge picture as the main background image with copy presented in plain coloured boxes, a total about face on the minimalist approach of plain backgrounds with small, boxed images, even corporate sites are tending towards a much bigger image for their headers so that viewers are presented with a really strong visual impact as soon as they arrive.

E commerce website for the CoffeebeanshopHere’s one we did earlier; our design for the Coffee Bean Shop is rich with colour and pictures but offers a more familiar range of links and content to browse and SEO than a single big image design

After two decades or cycling wildly between plain and simple text then horrifically garish vomits of colour and pictures it is finally finding some balance, pushing envelopes just a little bit at a time. Facebook is a great example, at first it was just a text feed with a photos folder and a small profile image, then photo and video got a lot more prominent in the feed, then profile images got bigger, then a large header image was added to profiles in addition to the profile picture, then more image boxes leading to photo albums and so forth. Bit by bit Facebook is getting more visual without risking the chaos that beset Myspace letting people change everything.

The great diversity of coding languages that have helped visual and functional designers test what can be achieved is now beginning to converge with the fifth major version of HTML allowing all kinds of animation, video, music and functionality all on its own.

Download speeds have reached a point where almost anything is possible and before everyone embarks on the next great phase of experimentation and adventure, this is a time of refinement in all the things that have been discovered so far, it’s even happening with search engines carrying out some really substantial refinements of their listing algorithms.

The new challenges are back focused on the functional side rather than the visual, new devices such as smartphones and tablets have created all kinds of opportunities for websites to offer real time, personalised, localised and mobile content, and this is moving fast towards a more augmented day to day experience.

Google have been playing for a few years with a pair of glasses that give you a digital display overlaid onto your view of the world, they want to integrate it with your smartphone, Google Maps and Google Places so that you can simply look at a skyline and have all kinds of data jumping up recommending places to get lunch, go shopping, avoid heavy traffic and so on, it won’t be so different from playing a computer game where all kinds of information flashes up on screen letting you know what’s going on with your character; we’re rapidly moving into a more sci-fi world!

Visual web design has stabilised for a while as a form of graphic design, waiting for this current period of technological and functional innovation find its feet before conceiving ways of making it look more beautiful.

The pattern here is clear; science types come up with spectacularly innovative concepts and technology, visual designers then popularise it’s use with simple and beautifully thought out control interfaces and experiences, adding polish to the raw ingenuity. As a form of graphic design it’s here to stay forever and will continually work through diverse styles, cultures and brands responding to each new medium and function that becomes plausible. After the embarassments of its youth and teens it is now a functioning 20 something adult, what’s exciting is what it’s quarter-life and mid-life crises may bring in terms of unexpected new directions, there could always be another Frontpage moment just around the corner!