Building a Multinational Website

There is nothing easy about building a multiple-location, multi-lingual website.  The options are getting better and better however to make this as smooth as possible.

I’ve been blogging about my experiences, starting from scratch, learning the LAMP stack and delivering a high quality, high performance solutions.  I’ve had my head in a few books lately; a php beginners book, a php advanced book, and a Drupal Pro book.  My eyes are heavy but I have a prototype to my end solution.

Building a solr search driven search site is completely painless, and getting faceted search options are completely customizable.  Out of the box, Drupal gives our website about 60% of our functionality.

However, be prepared: Drupal is a whole other language unto itself.  Coming from a nice SDK an a .Net environment, the vast number of function names you need to remember is quite dawnting.  .Net feels much cleaner- that being said I think I can do much more with the php code.

My next steps will be mastering the Jquery integration.  This site needs to feel real 2.0, and I plan on keeping up with key AJAX function.

That’s it for me tonight, time for some sleep.

From .Net to Php, Amazon EC2 and Solr

I’ve been off a few days because moving houses, but I’ve been busy at work.  I’ve taken what I’ve learned from my last post, and starting getting my hands dirty.

I’ve been soley developing in Microsoft products since I started developing, so this transition has been a slow one for me.   I’ll share my pains in the hopes I can help someone else.

Installing the LAMP stack on Amazon can be a breeze if you do it right.  Read these instructions for a quick setup with a VNC access.  I’ll briefly outline the steps from base install to solr:

  • Do yourself a favour and download the Firefox extention
  • When you create an instance of a server you have a long list of pre-installed packages to choose from- find the Hardy Ubuntu AMI
  • Install the LAMP stack using the command prompt (see link above) it also installed PHPMySql
  • For the newest Java install I used the Add Program options in the GUI, real simple
  • I downloaded solr from the site and followed the instructions on the site, worked like a charm

My path was riddled with many different dead ends when installing this, but in the end it could have been a 1 hour job.  My main stumbling block was getting vncserver to run with the amazon getting-started AMI builds.  Essentially I had to install everything manually, which is NO fun.

Next steps: trying to get solr to run as a webservice so I can access it internally.  Right now it is behind the 8983 port and I can’t access it from the web.  I’ll let you know how I get on later, and hopefully I’ll have my proof of concept all completed.

Neat Features in the NY Times

Had a look the New York Times site recently?  The site has some very interesting new features.

  • Highlighting text on the page will bring up an icon to search for information on that highlighted text.
  • New social networking features for content sharing and recommended features on top of the header.

I am not entirely impressed with the end-to-end usability of the highlighted text feature.  Instead of a nice ajax box for the search results it opens a new window, which is annoying.  I’m really impressed though in the idea.

The social networking features are much different than other implementations, which I’m always excited to see.  First of all, there is no password.  You can mark certain articles as “recommended”, and I’m assuming will be broadcasted to all of my “friends”.  The type of lingo used is very family to Twitter, as in I have people who I am “Following” and people who are following me “Followers”.  RSS feeds are also built in.

I like to see that a newspaper is innovating on the web.  With the decline in subscriptions, they are going to need a lot more of these neat kinds of features.

Facebook Prediction

In an aside to my last post let’s make some wild Facebook predictions.  In a way Mark has let us know his game plan.  Let’s look at what facebook would need to do to keep up Zuckerberg’s Second law:

  • Twitter-like micro blogging
  • Inter-site data sharing (most likely through facebook apps)
  • A more effective way to absorb all the new data

Looking at Mark’s past, knowing his ambitious nature, I wouldn’t put it past him if he’s thinking of making Facebook into an operating system.  I think the industry is coming to the point where niche operating systems could be successful.  Ladies and gentlemen, an introduction to the first social-based operating system.

fPhone?  …maybe I should stay out of marketing.

Zuckerberg's Second Law?

I just followed a techmeme link to Nicholas Carr’s blog mentioning more ramblings from Mark Zuckerberg.  He quotes him saying, “I would expect that next year, people will share twice as much information as they share this year, and [the] next year, they will be sharing twice as much as they did the year before”, which seems like a lame attempt to immortalize himself like Moore.

Setting aside the dramatics of his statement (and not taking the prediction too literally), is he right?  How much more information are people willing to share?  Well obviously unlike transistors in a circuit, each person varies significantly in the amount of information they will share.  The more outgoing people who need to put out all the information as possible, and the shut-ins will keep everything to themselves.  But… even the most exclusive of shut-ins I will bet have at least 1 thing on the internet; next year will they have 2?

Note: My wife just leaned over, bravely battling a cold, to change her Facebook status to “… is sick.”  A very fitting interruption to say the least.

I was initially going to try and fight this bold prediction, but I have a feeling it might be spot on.

The Weather Network Redesign

The Weather Network is my main source for weather and I’ve noticed they have just redesigned their site.  Since this is my area of expertise, and I have some free time tonight,  let’s take a closer look into their redesign and where they hit and missed..

Before:

The Weather Network Screen Shot (before) taken from Alexa.com

The Weather Network Screen Shot (before) taken from Alexa.com

After:

The Weather Network Screen Shot (new)

The Weather Network Screen Shot (new)

Let’s look at some of the much needed improvements The Weather Network made to this site.

Reorganized main navigation: Taking out the left navigation in favour for a top-heavy design was a no-brainer.  The old site was a littered with links and without logical organization.

Enhanced search bar: Taking a cue from many other sites, the search bar takes a new and improved focus.  When you log in the search bar will expand out showing you your favorite locations, including ski resorts and other major locations.

Usable Footer: You can’t see it in the screen shots, but the footer is feature rich and not bad to look at either.  You can see by the options that they are really trying to take the weather to new mediums.

And the bad news…

Unfortunately, that is a short list for a complete redesign for a modern website.  The redesign brings the site from 2000 to 2004.  Let’s look at some improvements which still need to be made.

Unenthusiastic design: The site still “feels” old.  The style is definitely cleaner, but the site is still bland and the pale colours just look washed away.  This is a very “safe” design that doesn’t excite.

Bad use of space: While I understand the map, it takes up too much high-value space.  Punch up the news section.  I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to the website looking for snowstorm updates and not being able to find anything.  The advertisements in the right would also look a little less like… well annoying advertisements if they were integrated into the site more.  Look at all that space under the advertisement wasted.

No News: I thought this was a site for weather news?

Endless Indexes: While I like the new menus, try clicking on a few.  Link, after endless link, only to bring you to a Rolodex of… yes more links.

Enhanced new search bar is not so enhanced: Why hide your favorite locations in the search bar?  Why not have them in a more obvious spot on the page?  Instead I’d like to see an auto-suggest feature for every location, even if you are not logged in (most people are not).

Why don’t you know my location?: IP to location software is cheap and a great way to guess a user’s location.  If I pick a different location the site should save it.

There are a few steps further to go but this is a welcome update.  I hope to see more improvements in the future.

Recruitment Companies and Surviving Today's Market

Looking for a job recently gave me chance to analyze the job recruitment and career building website, and I’ll have to say I’m very disappointed.  Most recruitment website are very generic, fighting an uphill battle competing for advertising space against the popular job boards like Monster, SimplyHired, and JobFinder.

Bad idea.

Recruitment companies have a bad rap, but this industry is potentially great and fulfilling.  Its a shame they try to imitate Job posting boards which are disastrously impersonal and ineffective.  I think we are going to see a major downfall for recruitment companies because they just don’t seem to get it.  Here are some tips for recruitment companies to improve their websites and survive the big bear market:

  • Recruitment companies have a great resource which I’ve never seen utilized: their recruiters.  They are the boots on the ground, they have great interpersonal skills, they are experts in their field– why are you hiding them?  Find ways to connect your professionals with your users.
  • Be more courteous!  It is usually a hard time (especially in this market) for job seekers.  Sending out an application for a job shouldn’t be like throwing a resume into a black hole.  It’s depressing.  I’d say only 30% of recruitment companies actually contacted me back, and I’m in a highly demanding industry.  There is no reason for that.
  • Build relationships with your users.  Never once did any of the sites I visited gave me an immediate (or eventually built an) attachment to the organization.  People change jobs more often now than ever so keep your clients coming back.  Especially with the temping industry, you’d think recruitment companies would do more to try to repeat your business.
  • Grow on your base business and expand into new territory.  There just isn’t any creativity out there.  Recruitment sites have a ton of traffic (we’ll see a jump soon) and generally have 1 function: job search.  You have all of that traffic, when don’t you grow a little?  Seek out some partnerships, find some useful content, and break out of mold to make yourself more profitable.
  • Go 2.0!  Yes, ok, it’s a buzz word, but its a great way to build relationships with your users.
  • Build on your job trend analysis tools.  SimplyHired is off to a great start with their trend analysis graph tool, but don’t stop there!  Let’s see some more in-depths content and articles and an improved interface.