Search Stories – Google blog

Google did a series of these very short videos, telling stories through search. I like them as nuggets of narrative, and as product demos.

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Life inside Facebook: how head of developers organises 500 people

Ever wondered what it’s like to be an engineer inside Facebook? We got an exclusive interview with Mike Schroepfer, vice president of engineering at the company, who has previously been named one of the 50 most important people on the web, to ask him how he gets things done in an organisation that’s not only growing fast – but also setting the pace when it comes to a lot of web implementations.

Schroepfer is in charge of a team of 500-odd developers who do everything on the site

Ah, he makes it sound so simple – I’d love to know more about what infrastructure supports this development arrangement, and what their investment in automated testing has been. It’s a bit of an obsession for me at the moment.

Using Google Sites to create a community website

Through a request for help on iT4Communities, I’ve been working with the Cutteslowe Community Association over the past few months on a website to advertise their community centre.

They wanted something simple, that would be easy to update, and had already put some thought into the contents of the site, but they wanted help in sorting out hosting for it. Rather than just find hosting for the few pages of HTML that they had created, I wanted to use a hosted platform that they could update themselves over time, and that would be free. I’ve been using WordPress a lot recently, but decided to give Google sites a try.

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The site was very easy to get started with, and to allow multiple people to edit. It also allowed us to keep the site private until we had finished working on it, then put it live.

Although the structure of the sites is very customisable, the layout is less so. You are stuck with a side navigation bar, unless you want to create your own images and cobble together a top bar navigation theme. You can’t change default font sizes, and if you customise the theme at all, then try out a different one, you lose your customisations. I also found that the formatting had a tendency to go a bit haywire if you copy text into it from elsewhere, and the HTML editor was terrible. I spent way too long trying to get the space in a table to look half-decent and ended up creating the table elsewhere and pasting the HTML back in. I hope I never need to touch that page again.

So, the site is now live and although I think it could be prettier, it is a good start. A lot of the pages have already been updated by the Association, so I am confident that it can be maintained.

There were quite a few suggestions that came up during our discussions, for other things that it would be useful for the site to do, so I am going to stay involved for a while and figure out the best way to:

  • Add audio and video files to showcase work done by the youth group (anyone know of the best youtube-like site for hosting audio?)
  • Add a Donate now button.
  • Increase the site’s prominence in search results. I have added Google Analytics, and the site is already ranking on the first page of Google. I’ve been contacting other sites that refer to the Association, so that they can add in links to us. The site could probably mention some key phrases slightly more prominently so if it’s not creeping up the rankings in a few weeks I’ll see what changes we can make to the text without overloading it.
  • Improve the design. We got to the stage of having a site that contained the right information and structure, but there are quite a few UI tweaks we would like to make.

It was also interesting to see non-technical computer users having to figure everything out for themselves. The Association has 2 permanent members of staff who spend a long time on computers with very little formal support. Having someone able to offer advice about email signatures, or free photo-editing packages also seemed to be valuable to them. I have long thought that there is scope for training packages for non-profits and small businesses on how to make the most of free resources that are available online, and that still seems to be the case. A look through the current appeals from iT4Communities certainly suggests that many charities are looking for ways to work remotely, to manage their data more effectively or to communicate with their volunteers better.

I’ve been in touch with the local organiser for iT4Communities, at OCVA, and she knows of quite a few other organisations that might like something similar to even this very simple site, so if you’re interested in helping out a community organisation with a bit of web-mastery, check them out.

Using Google Forms to gather website feedback

It seems like for almost anything you want to do online these days, Google provides a way to do it. It might not always be the best way, or the neatest, but it is likely to be good enough, and it is likely to be free.Recently a friend was building her first website for a while, and realised that the way she used to build a voting form was out of date. She was building a flat HTML site, not using a content management system. If she had been using something like WordPress or Typepad, she would have been able to choose from a number of plugins or widgets that would have done the job, but she didn’t have that option. I suggested two approaches.

  1. Use a service like User Voice that lets you embed their code in your page. This has a free version that allows a limited number of votes per month.
  2. Create a Google Docs Form, and gather responses in a Google Docs Spreadsheet.

She went for Option 2. Here’s how it worked. (This assumes you already have a Google Docs account. If not, you can sign up for free.)

  1. In Google Docs, choose New > Form.
  2. In the Edit Form screen that appears, you can give a title and description, and enter the questions you have. You can choose from text, multiple choice, a scale, a list or checkboxes, each with a question and help text.
  3. I’ll not go into detail here, because the process is pretty straight forward. Have a look at the video to see the steps.
  4. Choose More actions > Embed to get the HTML you need to show the form in another web page.
  5. Copy the HTML and paste it into your site.
  6. Users can now go to that page and fill in the form. Their responses will be saved in a Google Spreadsheet for you to review at your leisure.

Screencast of the whole processAs an aside, this is the first time I have created a screencast using Jing. Next time, I’ll try not to make it so enormous, and make fewer typos.Let me know what you think, either about the use of Google forms for gathering feedback like this, or about screencasting tips.