Notes on Statistics

It’s agreed that statistics can be useful, perhaps invaluable to a website’s success, but I find they raise more questions than they settle. And are their statistics and keyword search results really valid to begin with?

According to Yahoo, 32% of the traffic to californiarockhound.com is from Semalt, a shadowy group thought to be Ukrainian spammers. Great. At railroadsounds.net, Google Analytics says that 29.4% of my traffic comes from people using Brazilian Portuguese as their language. Really? At newmotorcyclerider.com, 29.4% of my traffic is Brazilian. Of course, it is all a fraud. The average time these ‘people’ spend at either site in every session is exactly zero seconds. More likely this is all robot generated traffic, sent out to every website, for reasons only these web crawler companies know. I am now trying to find specific IP addresses for these groups so I can use Analytics’ filters to block them. But finding this information at Google Analytics is very difficult, indeed, I find Analytics so hard to use that I am discouraged from using it. Speaking of Google, have you used their Webmaster Tools?

Google’s Webmaster Tools is an adjunct to Google Analytics. You go there for more and different information than Analytics. I’ve registered three of my sites with this property, and I continue to mull it over with worry and wonder. Like, what does it all mean? For example, Tools says the second most used search term for people coming to my site is “hobbess.” I can’t remember ever using that word, whatever it means, and I can’t imagine Google providing a link to my site because of it. Yet there it is. On a more practical note, there are discussions worth having, something that keyword search results can foster.

Question. If the most popular search term used to find my plant site is “Colorado Blue Spruce,” should I be forever penning articles on our spiky mountain friend? Based on keyword results alone? I just did a Google search for Colorado Blue Spruce, and my site does not come up within the first four pages. My site is there, somewhere at Google, but obviously buried deep. And with thousands of sites mentioning blue spruces, I can see no profit doing more writing on the subject, especially since I don’t know why the Blue Spruce traffic was generated to begin with. Hmm. It is perhaps not enough to have the data, but to be able to interpret it correctly. I continue to work at that.

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Lessons learned from my many websites

Simple business and personal websites are relatively cheap to build and maintain. Now that I have four active sites, it’s probably time to review them.

I started building websites back in 1994, with privateline.com (external link). It supported my hardcopy telephone magazine private line. The site grew to be wildly popular; in 2001 it had over two million page views. Even the United States Library of Congress recommended that people go to my site. I think about the sites’ success on days when my personal blog site has one, two, or sometimes no viewers. Oh, well. The site’s popularity led into writing hardcopy magazine articles as well as an appearance on The History Channel.  But the site grew so large, over 440 individual pages, that it became totally unworkable. The key downfall were broken links.

Links to external sites are absolutely essential to a website’s growth. People link to you if you link to them, and I think the major search engines use them as an indication of a site’s usefulness. But because websites are constantly changing pages at least 25% of my links died every year. With over a thousand external links it proved impossible to keep them all alive and well. If I did such a large site again I would get a service to e-mail me daily reports on dead links. And I would archive pages that I linked to, just in case the page in question was killed, and not just moved. Sound like a great deal of work? Certainly. Something best if you had staff or other team members. A site like this would have to make money or really contribute to your work portfolio. Unable to keep the site going, I sold it in 2006 for a few thousand dollars. It is now an archive.

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The second site I created was californiarockhound.com (external link). I thought it would be a good domain to support a rockhounding newsletter but when I ran the numbers the publication would not make any money. I kept the domain renewed, however, because it was less than ten dollars a month for hosting, done by yahoo. A lifetime plant enthusiast, professional and amateur, this unused site was an easy place to locate a tree tour I decided to make of my neighborhood streets. This site was done as a public service. If I wanted more traffic I would get a domain name that matched the mission. Done years ago, I sized all the photographs to display well in either a iPhone or an iPad. I don’t have to pay as much attention to sizing anymore with sites using WordPress technology. In those, you can resize your photos within your browser, instead of having to redo them using Photoshop. I also found californiarockhound.com a good place to post large files to be downloaded by others. Dropbox.com (external link) today does that much more efficiently. One last lesson: get a website that is compatible with your favorite browser. This yahoo based site only let me create in Firefox.

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My third site, the one you are at now, is essential to me as a freelancer. To better sell my writing skills I needed a site that could show off my portfolio. To make things simple I went with WordPress.com as a host. The alternative is to use WordPress technology at a site you host yourself. Having WordPress as a host allows you to easily enable features like statistics. And certain things are only available through Wordpress.com. All in all, though, unless you are an absolute beginner, I see no reason to limit yourself to WordPress.com. Common to all WordPress products is an overall simplicity of use with major exceptions. While it is amazingly easy to change a font across all pages, going from Times to Arial, for example, it is agonizingly difficult to change just a few sentences here and there. Like putting your photo captions into something different than the site-wide text., say changing the normal 12 point Times to a 10 point Helvetica.

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Railroadsounds.net (external link) is another WordPress site I built. I thought it might make some money by selling audio clips but so far there has been no interest. I’ll let it grow on its own and treat it as a hobbyist website. I bought an expensive template (around $100) for the site but I won’t do that again. If you are building a simple site you should start with a free WP program and upgrade later. I like simple sites and an uncluttered look to pages; there really was no need for me to buy an expensive framework. And although I am not making any money with the site, putting it together taught me a great deal about handling audio files, a skill I am sure I will use once again.

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And now we come to my latest site, newmotorcyclerider.com (external link). This is a site I am slowly building, using what I’ve learned in the last year about WordPress sites, audio, and video. I’d say I am two months away from launch. Done on pure speculation, I hope to get a motorcycle related sponsor in the future. Each day I think about new content to add to the site, and each day I get lost in details about making pages in WordPress. The template I am using here cost $50 and, again, it has more features than I probably need. But if I learn more perhaps my site can be more stylish, functional, and easier to read. At some point I would like all I’ve learned about creating sites since 1994 to come together to make something marvelous. In the end, though, good content, solid writing, must be the first priority. What good is lousy writing wrapped up in a shiny package? That is probably the most important lesson I have learned.

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Back from vacation

I’m back from a few days in the Redwood country of Humboldt county in California. The highlight was Fern Canyon, once used as a shooting location for the second Jurassic Park movie. Quite incredible scenery. I return to a broken website which I must somehow fix.

Before I left my new motorcycle website was having numerous problem loading images. Two hours of tech support help failed to achieve a solution. I may now have to have the site restored, by using a backup copy made by hosting company. But I want to make sure I have a copy of my site on my own computer before they restore what is now an older version of the site. I know this sounds confusing.

Websites like the one you are viewing are commonly created on a browser. Right now I am typing in a text window at WordPress.com. I got to the site using Safari as my internet browser. I did not first create this post in a word processing program, although many people do that. To make my own copy of the site I will copy each post and page and then paste them into individual documents in Word. I have never had to do this before.

Since the motorcycle site is so small this whole process should take less than an hour. I will loose the formatting of each page but I am not concerned about this. I can recreate the simple look of the site without a problem. The real problem is loosing my writing. Perhaps along the way I will figure out a better, easier way to create a back-up copy of my site on my computer. I will report back.

Update: Problems solved. WordPress sites often use various Widgets, which are short pieces of code used to enable different features. I was using an incompatible widget. Removed, my images load as they should. I did look into a backup website tool. It’s only $18 and allows you to update your site to your computer once a day. I am still thinking about it. Here’s the new site if you want to see it: http://www.newmotorcyclerider.com (external link).

Click on the photo below for a larger image.

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Fern Canyon. Humboldt County California

A change of plans for the new website

I’m building out the new website more than I originally planned. It’s a good change; I am keeping busy by writing and working with images, principally in Photoshop. I’ve done quite a bit of patent searching for motorcycle illustrations, ten of which I have reworked and posted for people to use. After a month of adding content I’ll try seeking a sponsor. Here’s a link to the site if you want track the progress: http://www.newmotorcyclerider.com (external link).

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Reworked patent illustration

A new motorcycle website

I’m building a new website with the hope of attracting a sponsor and for sharing my enthusiasm for my latest hobby. In the last two months I’ve learned to ride a motorcycle and I absolutely love it. Well, love mixed in with moments of anxiety, uncertainty, and frustration. Hmm, that is love, isn’t it? I’ve secured the domain newmotorcylerider.com (external link) and I will be building the site there.

My initial thought is to pen ten essays on different topics. Things like taking the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course, buying one’s first motorcycle, clothing and accessories, dealing with the weather, and so on. All subjects squarely focused on the beginning rider. In addition, I’d have some original photography as well as a video or two. My ideal sponsor would be Cycle Gear (external link), a nationwide accessory retailer. But I will have to work very hard to impress them.

The initial articles would all be samples. Only five hundred words or so, just to show a sponsor I can write. Instead of posting one article at a time, like with a blog, I think I will post all ten articles at once, inside a conventional website. One possible article is below, something on my first ride two months ago.

First ride

I was so worried about my upcoming Motorcycle Safety Foundation course (external link) that I found a guy on Craigslist who gave motorcycle coaching by the hour. I’ll call him Pirate Rick. I wanted some practice with a motorcycle clutch before the group lesson. Although I had years of using manual transmissions in cars and trucks I had never been on a motorcycle before. I knew the experience would be very different and it was.

Using a manual transmission in a car means doing three things at once. So it is, too, with a motorcycle. Let’s consider starting. Simultaneously, you shift into gear while depressing a clutch while pressing the accelerator. Let’s break that down.

In a car you engage the clutch with your left foot pedal. With a motorcycle, by comparison, you work the clutch with a hand lever. With a car’s manual transmission you shift with your hand. With a motorcycle you shift with your foot. To get a car moving you press the accelerator pedal with your right foot. With a motorcycle you twist a rotating handgrip on the handlebar. Got it? Somewhat? Same results in all three cases, but done in three different ways.

Shifting shouldn’t be overwhelming. If you get flustered remember it’s because there are many things going on all at once. It’s not your fault if you learn slowly; it’s a process to repeat over and over. Motorcycling is a skill. It takes practice to become proficient. And that challenge is partly why the sport is so engaging. But back to Pirate Rick.

On a sweltering Tuesday in May in north Sacramento, I met Pirate Rick at his suburban home. A few cars whizzed by now and then on the city street, too many for my nervous condition. Rick introduced me to his Honda Rebel, which he used for instruction as well as for renting out to people for their DMV exam.

I was ready to ride, or so I thought: I had helmet, gloves, boots, and jeans. “Do you have a learner’s permit?” Rick asked. Oops. Didn’t think about that. I was not legal to ride on a public road. I had assumed we would go to a private parking lot or somewhere else that was low-key and anonymous. Actually, I hadn’t even thought about where we’d ride. I was just hoping it was somewhere with some shade. Rick surveyed his street. He said, “I think will be okay here.” And so I began my first ride . . .

Motorcycle shift pedal.

Motorcycle shift pedal on the left. Foot rest in the center.

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My next blog post may not be for another week or two. I’ll be busy writing articles and putting the framework of the website together.

Logo for NewMotorcyleRider.com

Logo for NewMotorcycleRider.com

 

A new site

Railroadsounds.net (external link) is now largely complete. To get more traffic I will have to promote it, and I’ll have to add a pay mechanism if there is enough demand for the audio tracks. But, by and large, the work is done. I’m glad to have had a chance to work with audio and using a new hosting service. This is the first new site I’ve built since 2006. Much has changed since then and I am happy to learn new things. What strikes me most with the new web authoring programs is their lack of design flexibility and at the same time the ease of posting and making corrections. For my next site I’ll try to find something that provides more formatting options.

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Readability and random notes

I recall reading in the Chicago Manual of Style that the ideal line length for printed sentences was between 65 and 72 characters. Alas, I cannot now find that citation, but there is much interest on sentence length on the net. Here’s just one article (external link). The point is that readability is a subject of study and has been for decades, for centuries even, ever since Gutenberg. In this Internet Age we think we can design as we will, but that ignores common rules that the print world has always observed. In a time when a website can be viewed on a phone, a tablet, and on a desktop machine, we must be constantly reminded of how our words and sentences appear on a screen and how our readers are trying  to understand them. I’m not a web designer so I do not know how to standardize sentence length on my websites. But I try to stay aware of the similarities and the very real differences between computer and paper.

Have you ever proofread an important report? Especially a long one? It is amazing how many errors one can find when the paper is printed. There is something about how the eye jumps back and forth, this way and that, catching things at the top and bottom of the printed page, seemingly instantly, that is not done on a screen. We miss things in the small window of a computer. Even when looking at a full page screen you still find mistakes on the print-out that you will not catch on a monitor. Which brings me to another point.

If we cannot fully catch all mistakes on a monitor, can we fully understand what we see on a screen? Screens are really meant for looking quickly, often just a paragraph or two at a time. We browse or graze on a computer, instead of taking it in fully like with a book. Does this mean we have to print out every long form article on the web? No, but it does mean we should think about whether we are reading or reading well. And that we should probably put our web writing into small chunks, with illustrations to help explain the text, and enough repetition to get our points across, even if we didn’t get them across in the viewer’s first reading.

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