Integrate Facebook Identity & Comments into your Blog

Wrench
Creative Commons License photo: kevindooley

If you run a blog or a website, you might have heard about Facebook Connect and the possibility of using it with the WordPress blog system. Basically, Connect is Facebook’s attempt to spread their identity system across the rest of the web. By integrating connect, you can use Facebook’s user system, comment system, etc. on your site. You give a lot of power and leverage to Facebook over your website but it could make interacting with your site a lot more attractive and easier for users.

Their first widget allows you to use Facebook Connect to add commenting functionality to your site or blog. Here’s some Facebook developers explaining it all…


A quick tutorial by Facebook engineers on how to create a Comments Box social widget quickly and easily for iframe applications and websites.

I made a proof of concept of something similar about 8 months ago.

As far as I can see, this is a very easy way to add commenting functionality to your site without needing to have your own user, moderation system, etc. Comments made on your site will appear on the news feed on Facebook which can be good advertising. But the problem of course, is that your comments are not accessible. Google will never be able to index it and anyone with Javascript turned off won’t be able to see it. And when all the useful discussion, knowledge and information is tied up in comments in Facebook’s system, it’s a lot less open and less useful for everybody.

Predicting the future popularity of a web page

Balloons in Trafalgar Square
Creative Commons License photo: wili_hybrid

New Scientist reports this week that a new tool developed at HP Labs could potentially predict the popularity of a web page in 30 days time. Essentially they say that by looking at the rate at which a web page picks up views in the first few days can predict the subsequent popularity of the page 90% of the time. It doesn’t seem too radical an idea – after all the pages which are more popular in the first few days are likely to get bookmarked more, linked to more, higher place on Google, etc.

The research focused around the sites Digg and YouTube so it would be interesting to see how it could be applied to other sites. You can download the paper online at arXiv.org.

On a similar note, I’ve found that I’ve been able to get some incredibly stunning useful information from the popularity of webpages on my site. For example, one of my posts about MSN Messenger downtime gets a lot of hits whenever MSN Messenger goes down. When the number of visitors for that page is significantly above normal, I know that MSN is actually down. If the number of visitors is normal, it’s typically just an issue with my connection or my local server. In fact, I’ve found this method much more reliable than using Microsoft’s own service status page for the Messenger service. Similarly, I found a huge spike in the number of visitors to my post on the possibility of VAT cuts straight after the recent pre-budget report. If only there was a way of exposing these statistics in a useful way!

Sterling Falls: Good News for Publishers, Bad News for Advertisers

God save the Queen
Creative Commons License photo: BraNewbs

As a webmaster and publisher, what exactly does the credit crunch and the dramatic falls in the value of the pound mean for you? (This article is primarily targeted at a UK audience).

I feel that this is a seldom discussed issue as very few publishers are fully aware of exchange rates and the impact on their ability to make money. In this article, I will discuss the consequences for British publishers of the dramatic falls of the value of the pound and the possible business opportunities here.

What’s happened?

I’m sure we’re all sick about hearing about the credit crunch… the global financial crisis. I’ve found myself avoiding the news because quite frankly I’ve had enough of hearing about our financial woes. As the chancellor of the UK has just admitted, it looks like the UK will be entering a recession. Economists say a country is in recession if its total economic output (a proxy for quality of life) falls for two successive quarters. Because of the bad news about the UK economy, investors have been rapidly moving money out of the Sterling. This has caused the value of Sterling to plunge. According to Google Finance, Sterling was sitting very close to 2 dollars to 1 pound a couple of months ago. It today plunged as low as 1.53 dollars to 1 pound. And analysts are predicting a further drop down towards 1.4 dollars per pound.

What does that mean?

facing the ocean
Creative Commons License photo: numberstumper

The weaker pound is good news for exporters, and bad news for importers. Web advertising is somewhat unique in that almost all advertising networks trade in dollars. So publishers export advertising to the rest of the world (they sell advertising in dollars) whilst advertisers import it from the rest of the world (they buy advertising in dollars).  Let me clarify:

A website publisher earning $10,000 per month would have recieved about £5,000 per month. If the value of the Sterling falls to 1.4 dollars, that income increases to £7,140 per month. That equates to £25,000 of extra income every year.

However, it’s bad news for advertisers. An advertiser spending $10,000 per month would have to shell out £7,140 per month instead of £5,000 – a price increase of almost 50%.

As the audience of this blog tends to include a large number of web developers, especially from the UK, this is good news for you. In fact, if you haven’t thought about monetising your blog or website, it’s well worth doing now.

It’s not necessarily good news though…

piles
Creative Commons License photo: pfala (injured)

The more eagle eyed readers will have noticed something. As it’s costing more for British advertisers to place adverts, they’ll place less of them and be willing to pay less money to advertise. So even if the exchange rate of the pound falls, the actual amount of income recieved might not actually go up as much as expected. Right? Kind of.

If your website caters for British audiences then it is likely the vast majority of your advertisers will be British companies. If you’re selling advertising to a British company, you’re not really exporting anything – only selling it to a domestic company, but using dollars.

If you cater for international audiences and companies, you’ll be a winner.

But what else about the financial crisis?

Well, regardless of exchange rates, companies are a lot less likely to advertise right now. Given we’re entering a recession, money is tight. Companies cannot be confident about how much money they really have available and whether consumers will respond to their advertising. Like for everybody else, the financial crisis is bad news for exporters too.

Whether the fall of Sterling is a long-term correction or just a short-term blip, I can’t say. But what’s important for us to all realise is that the game has totally changed. We need to rethink the way we all spend our money. But in the very short term, I believe there is a big opportunity in the market for British publishers.

Google launches web browser: Google Chrome

The duckies invade Google
Creative Commons License photo: Yodel Anecdotal

Wow, what can I say. This surprised me. Google is launching it’s own browser called Google Chrome. They created a comic book to announce it to the world, which is summed up at Google Blogoscoped.

It’s based on the WebKit engine also used in Safari, and includes Google Gears by default. They’ve taken bits from Safari and Mozilla and included it in this project, which they’ve also open sourced.

It’ll be interesting with another browser in the space. It launches tommorow when us web developers can finally have a play with it and see what it’s like.

Great Prank: Scaring people with Flash Fullscreen

This is an absolutely hilarious prank.

Flash 9 comes with a fullscreen mode. It’s used in the YouTube player, BBC iPlayer and so on. When fullscreen mode is opened, Flash displays a semi-transparent message telling you full screen has been activated – the reason for this is so somebody couldn’t spoof a user interface using Flash to steal your personal information.

This prank distracts you from that message and proceeds to scare you using full screen mode. Press Escape to exit.

The only way this could be improved would be with a message saying “Press any key to restart your computer”. That would scare anybody out of pressing Escape. Although it would certainly cross the line of being very evil!

Making Money Online (and a living?)

What no one ever tells you about blogging
Creative Commons License photo: andyp uk

Much has been written about people who’ve quit the day job and taken up blogging or maintaining web sites full time. The claim is that you can spend a bit of time setting it all up and updating it with new content every so often and earn a lot of money very easily. In this post, I want to analyse whether this is true in practice. Further on in this post are also a couple of bits of advice to anyone who wants to monetise their website.

How much do you want to earn?

The most important question regarding making money online is how much you want to make and whether you can make it.

If you wanted to make a living from websites or blogging, the absolute minimum income you’ll want would be to have income equal to the level of “relative poverty”. This is how much money you’ll need just for the basic neccessities. In the US, its $10,787 a year. In the UK, it’s £11,326 a year ($21,900).

For my fellow Brits: you can already see how the exchange rate is stacked against us and the high costs of living don’t help. It’s always recommended that your primary sources of income and expenditure are in the same currency so you aren’t at risk from exchange rates volatility. It’s a source of worry if you want to become a full-time blogger and you live outside the USA.

Anyway, that means earning £215 a week just for the basic essentials. As the current exchange rate, that means a minimum income of $420 per week.

Let’s say your primary source of income is advertising. And let’s assume an eCPM (Earnings from 1,000 page impressions) of $1. So you’ll need 420,000 page impressions per week, or 60,000 per day. And if you want to earn a decent living, you’ll need at least 100,000 impressions per day.

It’s just a rough back of the envelope calculation. Of course, eCPM depends on all kinds of factors such as the subject of your site, the source of visitors (e.g. Digg traffic gives poor eCPM) and the number of advertisers.

Blogging tools, at Nerja Parador...
Creative Commons License photo: Ben30

Hopefully, I’ve quickly demonstrated that making a living online isn’t easy. Perhaps the exchange rate will become more favourable to website publishers in the future. Perhaps by redesigning your site you can increase your eCPM. But you’ll need close to a six-digit number of page impressions every day if you’re going to stand a chance.

What skills do I need?

If you want to be a professional blogger or webmaster, there are a whole range of skills you’ll need.

First and foremost, you’ll need to be able to write and to enjoy writing. After all, people come to your site for content and you’ll need to be able to write good, coherent content regularly.

You’ll need all the technical skills: web design, HTML, some CSS. You’ll need to know how to use a CMS or blog software. You’ll need to be able to optimise your pages for search engines.

Running a webpage professionally means you’re running a business. You’ll have to know how to communicate with advertisers and readers, manage cashflow…

It’s certainly possible to have all these skills, but making money online certainly is not easy or a “lazy” way of making money as it is often claimed on sites across the internet.

But if you do want to give it a go, a few bits of advice:

  • Make sure you find the topic of your blog/website interesting – otherwise it won’t be fun!
  • Think supply and demand. If you can supply something that is scarce (not many other people supply it) and high in demand (lots of people want it), you’re onto a winner. The fact that you need technical skills to run a blog means that blogging attracts the technical types. That means there are billions of blogs on computers and technology. If you do want to make a living, you probably won’t make it as a technology blogger. Sorry!
  • Keep experimenting with different ad programmes, placements and formats to maximise your earnings. Sometimes, rather surprisingly, fewer ads will give higher earnings.
  • You’ll probably find AdSense earning reports very addictive and check them many times every day… don’t.

Anyway… I hope this isn’t too demoralising for anybody! I write this blog entry as a technology analyst and an economist rather than somebody who has expertise or experience trying to make a living online. But I think people do need to know that it’s not the easy and lazy way of making money that people make it out to be.

Proof of Concept: Using Facebook as Identity on a Blog

Please accept my apologies for the third successive post about Facebook!

I wanted to show off a proof of concept I’ve developed of using Facebook as an identity system for your blog. The proof of concept doesn’t run on a real blog system – that is simply to keep it simple and because I didn’t want to spend a lot of time with the ins and outs of WordPress. I can see no reason why it couldn’t be adapted to integrate with WordPress/Drupal or whatever.

How does it work?

  • You’re on the blog page and you wish to make a comment.
  • You click on a link which takes you to the Facebook webpage.
  • If you haven’t before used your Facebook identity on this application before, you’ll be asked to give permission for it to access your personal information.
  • You are returned to the blog page, now logged in with your facebook identity.

Total development time was about 1 hour, took about 50 lines of code. If anybody is interested, I can open source the PHP source code.

As far as I can see, it follows the platform terms of use. The only information which my proof of concept has access to is your name and the URL of your Facebook avatar. This information is not stored except with your expressed consent (e.g. you post a comment).

Pop over to the proof of concept and feel free to login or to post a comment to try it out.

School Alumni Facebook Experiment Results

Halls Of Horror
Creative Commons License photo: DownTown Pictures

On Sunday I introduced my experiment with building a community through Facebook for a school alumni group. I’m pleased to be able to say that the Facebook application was complete yesterday and I can now discuss some of the results.

First of all, a little about the target audience. We are looking at sixth form college students in Britain (between 18-19 years old). In grand total, there are 200 students in total and that’s the total number of people we are aiming at. I would estimate that about 25% of the target audience doesn’t use the internet on a regular basis so the target figure of course is about 150.

We’ve had two attempts at creating a community around the school alumni group.

Attempt 1: Drupal

The first attempt involved using the open source Drupal CMS. The community featured forums, latest news and so on. The community was advertised primarily through real world posters and presentations. There was also a small campaign online to promote it via e-mail.

After one year, we managed about 50 registrations (33% of the target) of which about 5 are active. This means the community is actively used by about 4% of the target audience. In total, about 30 messages were received on the forums in the one year the community has been active.

I believe the main barrier to the success of this online community is the difficulty in creating an account. You need to set up yet another username, password and validate your e-mail address. That means people have to go to a lot of effort to join the community and the lack of active members in the community also limits the usefulness (more on this later).

Attempt 2: Facebook

This is the new alumni community which I launched yesterday lunchtime. The community has various features which are similar to the first attempt. The community again was promoted through real world posters and presentations, as well as online via email and messaging. This time, viral marketing also took place through various Facebook channels.

After just 24 hours, the community reached 75 users. That means we’re already half way towards the target of 150. Are people engaging with the application? We received 30 messages in just one day. According to Facebook statistics we received 1,100 page views in just the first 12 hours. For me, that’s astonishing growth – through a Facebook application we achieved the same results in under a day as it took a year to achieve on an external Drupal-based website.

From my perspective, the amount of work that it took to promote the Facebook application was much less than that of the external community.

Conclusions

Bright Atlanta
Creative Commons License photo: Nrbelex

A sceptic will point out that this is an unfair test because the two communities were obviously different in their designs and feature sets. I will say that when it came to launching the second community, I was much more experienced at creating and designing online communities so I was able to create a much more engaging community. But it is the fact that we opted for a Facebook application which allowed us to develop these engaging features. Many features have a critical mass of users below which it would not be useful.

The growth of community is proportional to its size. The constant of growth (k) depends on various factors:

  • The proportion of users who are active in the community
  • The proportion of users who engage in the community
  • The proportion of users who will let their friends know about the community
  • The conversion rate (invites to registrations)

I would say that Facebook applications have a much higher growth constant than other communities, for several reasons:

  • Easy to access; no additional URL, username, password to remember
  • There are additional communication channels through Facebook
  • It is much easier to build engaging community features through Facebook
  • Facebook has an invite system for users to share their favourite apps
  • Users already have Facebook accounts meaning the “barriers to registering” are almost zero: all they have to do is to tick a box granting an application access to their personal data.

Of course, it depends on the demographic of your userbase. This experiment was run with British teenagers, many of which have Facebook. Across other demographics, I believe implementing OpenSocial or OpenID could lead to similar benefits for online communities.

I’m very pleased with the results of this experiment and I would say it has confirmed some of the suspicions I had when I wrote my previous post. Of course, it’s something you can rip apart but I believe it’s well worth a think when you come to create your next online community!

Weaving the Web (Tim Berners-Lee)

I remember a few years ago receiving a copy of Weaving the Web by Tim Berners-Lee as a gift. Tim Berners-Lee is of course the inventor of the World Wide Web and is a real hero of mine. This is a fascinating book about the events which lead up to the invention of the web.

Tim Berners-Lee graduated in physics and created a programme called Enquire at CERN. The programme stored relationships between scientists at CERN, their projects and their contact details. In fact, it sounds very much like what wikis do today.

He discusses the launch of the first page on the web, the different protocols and the concept of URLs, the spread in popularity across the globe, early web browsers and the launch of the W3C web standards consortium.

In the last half of the book, he discusses what he saw as the future of the web: the social and eventually the semantic web. Although the book was written in 2000 at the height of the dotcom boom, it is interesting that this vision is only becoming realised today with the rapid explosion in social networking websites over the last year or so. The semantic web still looks like it’ll be a few years away but DBPedia might be one site to watch.

I was amused when I visited Switzerland a few years ago to see CERN advertising itself as the place where the World Wide Web was invented. No, never mind the physics. After reading the book, I found out that the people at CERN weren’t particularly enthusiastic about the web to begin with and I feel CERN may be slightly exaggerating their role in the development of the web.

Even though this book is reaching a decade old, it’s still a fantastic account of how the web came about. If you’re interested in the web as a whole and where it might go in the future, this is still one to read. I’m sure history students will be studying this text in 100 years time.

You can buy the book from Amazon.com (US) or Amazon.co.uk (UK).

Test your website in Internet Explorer 5.5, 6, 7 and 8

A big headache for web developers is testing websites in different versions of Internet Explorer. In Windows you can only have one copy of Internet Explorer installed.

To get around this limitation, some developers use IECapture which takes a screenshot of your webpage in Internet Explorer. It’s great for a quick test but it’s impractical during development: you can only see part of the page and if doesn’t help you debug anything.

Another option is to use Microsoft’s virtual machine or the Standalone IE program.

IE Tester

A little application called IETester can simplify the process. It features the rendering engines for IE 5.5, IE 6, IE7 and IE8. You can open up a tab for each rendering engine, hence switching between different rendering engines seamlessly. It also allows you to split the view and to see your website in the different rendering engines at once.

An interesting user interface design too… An odd blend of Firefox 2 icons with an Office 2007 ribbon.