Internet Cookies Are Not Always Sweet

 

cookies

Cookies have been around about as long as the World Wide Web. They are small pieces of data, text files stored on your computer or other device when you load a website in a browser.

Back in the 1990s, lots of sources would tell you to delete the cookies on your computer. People treated them like a kind of spyware. They can be useful. They remember your email and information for forms. They remember passwords that you want remembered. They remember preferences and allow users to register and remain logged in.

As with the sweet and crunchy kind, there are different kinds. A cookie can be just for one visit to a site – a “session cookie” or for multiple visits – a “persistent cookie.”  First party cookies are set by the site that you are visiting, but there are also “third-party cookies” set by other websites who serve up content on that site.

The European Union is concerned about cookies. They have an  ePrivacy Directive (often referred to as the ‘cookie law’) which places requirements on website owners and operators to provide information about, and gain consent for their use of cookies. I have visitors from outside the United States, so I have added the option to this site to opt out of cookies from the site.

This site is hosted on WordPress.com and it makes use of cookies for a variety of different purposes. They offer users a widget to inform and allow consent for cookies. You probably saw that the first time you visited the site, but it might be useful to know more about those cookies are used.

One technical one is akm_mobile which stores whether a user has chosen to view the mobile version of the site.

If you are a registered WordPress.com user, then a twostep_auth cookie is set when you are logged in using two factor authentication. Another cookie – wp-settings-{user_id} is useful to me as a user because it allows my user wp (WordPress) admin configuration for the site.

Some cookies are pretty innocent, such as cookietest which checks if cookies are enabled, and  botdlang which tracks the language a user has selected.

Performance cookies collect information on how you interact with websites and WordPress says this analytical data is only used to improve how a website functions. An example is the ab cookie used for AB testing of new features.

Restricting or disabling cookies can limit the functionality of sites, or prevent them from working correctly at all. Still, people might not like the use of ones like advertising cookies that are used to display relevant advertising to visitors. They track details about visitors such as the number of unique visitors, number of times particular ads have been displayed, the number of clicks the ads have received, and are also used to measure the effectiveness of ad campaigns by building up user profiles.

Sites often use third-party applications and services such as social media platforms. When you use a Facebook or Twitter sharing button or embedded video from YouTube and Vimeo, cookies may be set by these third parties, and used by them to track your online activity. (I don’t have any direct control over the information that is collected by these cookies and either does WordPress.

You can choose to restrict the use of cookies, or completely prevent them from being set. Most browsers provide ways to control cookie behavior, such as the length of time they are stored.

To learn more about how to manage cookies, see aboutcookies.org. For more about advertising cookies and how to manage them, see youronlinechoices.eu (EU based), or aboutads.info (U.S.-based).

Thank You, Increased Bandwidth

Web design ideas that were once not under consideration because of slow page load times are now web trends because increased bandwidth and data compression means users won’t bounce from your site because of a dragging load time.

Here are two examples.

The trend to using more streamlined and minimal designs allow typefaces to be more dramatic – and perhaps less recognizable or complex. We don’t think of typefaces as bandwidth hogs, but it really is the lighter design trend that  allows for those typefaces.

Another trend that relies on better bandwidth is using background videos and animations. Of course, they can also be a distraction if used poorly. Moderation is key here.

This would seem a quite natural design element for a video or film company.

Life of Pi
Official site for the film Life of Pi

A lighter animation is a hover animation. Most users intuitively hover their cursor or finger over items, especially if they want more information.

And on this lightly animated home page for Spotify , we see the web trend of using carousels.

spotify

 

This simple but extensive use of video backgrounds comes from a company with a very simple URL http://y.co/, a luxury yacht company with large video footage as its background.

 

yacht

 

Carousels, Parallax and Hamburger Menus

 

Two trends that I see this year in web design have to do with layout and scrolling. One is the carousel scroll that goes right to left rather than up and down. This makes most or all of the site “above the fold” (to use an old newspaper term) so that the viewer doesn’t need to scroll down – not that scrolling left is so much easier.

The second trend gives us some very long pages that endlessly scroll where “pages” overlap each other and no clicking to other pages is necessary.

The parallax site allows the foreground and background content to scroll at different speeds, so there is sometimes an illusion of depth. It is a nice effect, but both of these trends have drawbacks. For example, parallax can be bad for you search engine optimization since they appear to search bots as being made up of one page and not all the content can be crawled by the search engines. This is exacerbated when text is embedded in graphics.

There are other trends becoming more prevalent this year, such as that series of short lines that have become known as a “hamburger” being used to indicate that a menu is linked there. This has become popular as the popularity of mobile devices grew and designers started simplifying navigation.

You can read more about these and other trends and some of the plusses and minuses of these design trends.

Social Media For Authors

It’s rare to find any published writers that don’t have their own website. Publishers usually create some kind of pages for their authors, but you really need your own place to promote yourself, your writing, your readings, workshops and appearances, and probably to share some samples of your work.

coben

Mystery writer Harlan Coben has a very good author site that is obviously professionally maintained. He has his own Facebook account, plus one for the books. He is on Twitter and he uses Instagram.  Harlan is a friend and former student of mine and I know that he does much of his own social media. His website points you to all his social media (including an old-fashioned email newsletter – know your audience – not all of them are on social media) and the social media points you to the website.

We are past the time of having to explain why a website is important, and are now pretty deep into the time when any writer – novelist, non-fiction writer or poet – also needs a social media presence.

You don’t necessarily need to be on all the social networks. In fact, even though it is advisable to take possession of your name real estate in all the big networks before someone else does, you probably can’t put out enough content to make all of them seem active unless you have help.

Besides having a truly personal account, having a closed or open Facebook group is a good way to share information, events, photos, reviews and press. Depending on target audience, the chances are much better that readers will check their Facebook – or other social networks – more frequently than your website. Those social posts may drive readers to more in-depth material on the website such as a book preview.

Instagram is the visual place to be, though some treat it in the same way as Twitter (which has also become more visual from its early days) with hashtags and short messages.

Of course, there’s also LinkedIn and Pinterest and plenty of others out there and on the horizon. But again, don’t over extend yourself. LinkedIn is a purely professional, yet still social network, and you would think a professional writer should be there. Yes, have a profile, but that’s not where your readers expect to find you. You would be spending you time better by being in GoodReads which is populated with readers and allows you to do things like offer free book giveaway promotions.

All of this might be handled by someone else – a publisher, agent, publicist – but for the majority of writers reading this, it’s all up to you.

I am still a believer that most social media needs to point to a website where more significant content is found.

My own predilection is for poetry, so I look at a lot of poet sites, both as a reader of their work and as a designer of websites. They range tremendously from simple, homegrown, self-maintained sites, to slickly designed sites. The latter type is often infrequently updated, which is not a good thing. A good test is to check their page for readings and other events.

I checked 7 poet sites in my bookmarks to see what’s new or updated.

Marie Howe‘s site is nicely designed, but hasn’t been updated in 3 years.

Maria Mazziotti Gillan‘s website has up-to-date book information and a complete bio for others to use. Her event updates are on a complementary blog that is updated at least once a week with readings, workshops or her poetry.  (I know that because I’m the one who maintains the site and blog.)

Laura Kasischke has a good basic site, and Laura Boss has a simple, but clean and updated website.

taylormali.com has a very nice site but shows no “gigs” upcoming or in the recent past.

kevinyoungpoetry.com is a good, modern site and up to date in content, and so is the site for robertpinskypoet.com. The fact that their URLs are not kevinyoung.com and robertpinsky.com means someone else grabbed that very important piece of their identity real estate. That is often done as a business venture with the aim to resell it to the author or celebrity. A domain/URL will usually cost $15-25 a year, but resales frequently go for $5000 and up. Get it while you can…

Robert Hass has only a site done by his agent barclayagency.com/hass.html but no personal site – but roberthass.com is owned by someone – probably not the poet Robert Hass.

Web Accessibilty

accessibility iconsThe Americans with Disability Act (ADA), was passed in 1990 “to [eliminate] discrimination against people with disabilities.” Tim Berners-Lee is credited with inventing the World Wide Web in 1989 and developing in 1990 both the first web server, and the first web browser, called WorldWideWeb and later renamed Nexus.

The Internet and the WWW provided both new opportunities for those with disabilities and new challenges.

Making things accessible to all in a digital environment takes extra thought and effort and, unfortunately, that is still not being done in all case. I am sensitive and aware of many of these issues but willing to admit that I don’t always run every check on webpages or add relevant alt tags to every image.

I have worked on a number of online projects that required focus groups and user testing, but those tests did not usually include people with disabilities or specifically address all the issues of accessibility testing.

using a touchscreen with a head dauber
A voter with a manual dexterity disability is making choices on a touchscreen with a head dauber

There have been design jobs I have done that required accessible checks because they were government sites or grant-funded by government agencies. The website for the Poetry Center at PCCC is an example of a site that because of its funding support

There are now free tools that will check many, but not all, of the most important accessibility issues on your website. WAVE Toolbar is an extension originally designed for the Firefox browser but now available in Chrome. It’s an interesting example because if you view it using Firefox you get the message: “The WAVE Firefox Toolbar is no longer available. It is no longer compatible with new Firefox versions and the Mozilla add-on developer environment no longer supports the functionality required for toolbar evaluation. We recommend that you install the updated WAVE Chrome extension.” Even accessibility tools aren’t always accessible.

Each of these tools requires interpretation in the same way that using a spellchecker or grammar checker or plagiarism-detecting tool require user interpretation. On the Poetry Center website, I will get “errors” that say “Heading markup should be used if this content is intended as a heading” but the noted line of code is not intended as a heading, so I can dismiss the error.

This post itself will produce dozens of errors in a check and some of them are out of my control because they are built into the WordPress theme I am using and I don’t have complete control over things like built-in anchors and semantic tags. Still, it is still worth running the checks to see if there are things I can address, such as images without tags (descriptions for visually-impaired users) or tables that will not present the information intended correctly to someone using a screen reader.

Do I always run a check on every page I produce. No. I am guilty of doing general checking when I first produce a site and then getting lazy as I add pages (especially true for blogs). Did I run a check on this post because it is about accessibility? Yes.

A more customizable and detailed tool (perhaps harder to use and interpret for some) is HTML_CodeSniffer which is a bookmarklet that works with most browsers.

Do you ever view your site in all the current browsers? Though you might dismiss Internet Explorer as old school, if 35% of your site visitors are using it, you can’t dismiss it.

Is your site mobile-friendly and more than just friendly to phone and tablet users?

Another tool is Tota11y which is described as “an accessibility visualization toolkit…a single JavaScript file that inserts a small button in the bottom corner of your document.” When you click on the button, you see where your web page has accessibility problems.

Good places to start are probably not with the tools as much as with some sites with information about accessibility in general. The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative provides both. They have a Web Evaluation Tools List and also information such as “How People with Disabilities Use the Web.

WebAIM is another source offering “Considering the User Perspective: A Summary of Design Issues,” and information on the “Principles of Accessible Design” as part of its “Introduction to Web Accessibility.

A search will also provide many simple articles, such as “25 Ways to Make Your Website Accessible,” that can get you started as a designer with making your designs more accessible.

The first step is simply being aware that there are always potential problems for some users when you present information in a digital environment. For example, will someone using a screen reader know that I put “aware” in italics in the previous sentence, and how important is my use of italics, bold and especially colors to the meaning of the information? What is left when all of that is stripped away?

Web Design Samples

A sampler of some of my website designs ranging from free to paid hosting, designs using templates and custom-built ones.

  1. Design Advisor  NJ School of Architecture
  2. MariaGillan.com a hosted poet’s site which includes a separate blog at mariagillan.blogspot.com (using Blogger)
  3. PoetsOnline.org and its companion Poets Online blog
  4. Faculty site at NJIT
  5. One Page Schoolhouse  site using Blogger
  6. Soledad O’Brien  information site and blog
  7. Paterson Literary Review – journal
  8. Endangered NJ blog
  9. PCCC Writing  Center
  10. Weekends in Paradelle
  11. Why Name It That?
  12. NJIT.edu site revision done as Manager in Web Services at NJIT in moving existing site to a new content management system, 2006-2007
  13. eLearning Orientation – NJIT site with (now old-fashioned) Flash intro, 2004
  14. Design Advisor (School of Architecture, NJIT)