Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Google Trends for Websites

Just caught up with the launch of Google Trends for Websites which extends the functionality of the original Google Trends (which charts the relative popularity of search terms) to offer site-specific traffic data. Whilst TechCrunch and ReadWriteWeb are both rather sniffy about it, citing its partial data-set and lack of coverage for smaller sites, for me it adds a couple of interesting new elements in the form of the 'Also visited' and 'Also searched for' rankings (data which I don't think either Compete or Alexa provide for free).

Thus, the trends page for bbc.co.uk indicates that visitors to the BBC site are also visiting other broadcasters (ITV and Channel 4), middle-class retail outlets (John Lewis and Marks & Spencer) and a range of other, primarily task-oriented, sites (weather, price comparison, concert tickets, motoring and government services/information). It also reveals how popular 'bbc iplayer' has become as a search term.

Compare with the trends page for channel4.com which, apart from revealing a much greater seasonal fluctuation in seasonal traffic levels (thank you Big Brother), indicates that visitors to the Channel 4 site are often visiting other TV related sites (plus a couple of food sites and a cinema chain). Search is dominated by programme titles (esp. Big Brother).

Whilst the statistical robustness of this data is clearly questionable, it nevertheless provides an interesting insight into the behaviours around some of the web's biggest properties (Google excepted). Whilst similar data can be obtained (for a fee) from companies like Hitwise, this is the first time - to my knowledge - that 'Also visited' and 'Also searched for' data has been made freely available in this way.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Music recommendations - the people vs. Last.fm

Following the success of my last two crowdsourcing experiments (picking me a new mobile phone and sorting out my holiday reading) I thought I'd ask you lovely people for help with a new task: broadening my musical horizons. As much as I love Last.fm (and I do) its recommendations seldom deliver the wonderful serendipity of a musical tip from a friend. So, what are the albums/tracks that have been tickling your ear drums of late? My musical taste is reasonably eclectic, with a slight bias towards miserable indie rock. Below are my top fifteen most played artists according to Last.fm (full list here). With the OMM's Record doctor unlikely to be paying me a visit any time soon, my musical prescription is in your hands...

1. Eels
2. Ben Folds
3. Beck
4. Red Hot Chili Peppers
5. Radiohead
6. Muse
7. Mercury Rev
8. Langhorne Slim
9. Silver Sun
10. The Arcade Fire
11. Belle and Sebastian
12. The Divine Comedy
13. Jack Johnson
14. The Killers
15. Goldfrapp

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

BBC Radio Player - Happy Birthday / R.I.P.

What with all the recent (and entirely justified) excitement about the BAFTA award winning BBC iPlayer, its easy to forget where the BBC's on-demand programme offer all began; with the BBC Radio Player, which is 6 years old today (or rather, it would be, if it hadn't already been rebadged iPlayer). With a more wholesale integration of radio into iPlayer imminent, I thought I'd pen a brief epitaph to the BBC Radio Player before it disappears forever into the annals of internet history.

BBC Radio Player v1

I had promised (in my first ever blog post) to write more about the Radio Player, after its v2 relaunch in January 2005, but somehow never got round to it. Of course, the original concept wireframes, sketched up by myself and Chris Kimber in a 5th floor meeting room of the old Broadcasting House, have long since disappeared, as have the many pre-launch email threads debating whether it should be in a pop-up, whether users might like to browse by genre as well as radio station (they did) and, of course, what to call it (we went for the Ronseal option). What I do have is screengrabs of versions 1 and 2 (above and below), the former in situ on the old BBC Radio homepage.

BBC Radio Player v1

Obviously countless people have contributed to the success of the Radio Player over the years (its currently delivering 25 million hours of listening a month), but I'd particularly like to credit three people who were instrumental in shaping the product: Dawn Budge, who did the lion's share of the coding for both versions 1 and 2; Jamie Tetlow, who designed the v2 console (and a gorgeous browser-based UI for the back-end production system) and Chris Kimber, who recognised the transformative potential of radio on demand and made it happen, as this June 2002 Guardian interview illustrates. Thanks guys - I think we did good.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

My Top 10 Favourite Twitter Apps

Of the hundreds available, every twitterer/tweeter/twit has their own favourite Twitter apps. Here are ten of mine:

1.) Hahlo 3

Has replaced Twitter for iPhone (ne. Thincloud) as my iPhone Twitter client of choice thanks to its sweet, sweet UI.

2.) Twitterrific

Mac-only Twitter desktop client. I tried converting to the Adobe AIR-based twhirl but kept coming back to the no-frills simplicity of Twitterrific. Only marred by the occasional "bad request" error.

3.) TweetStats

Simple but effective app which charts your tweeting habits. Turns out I tweet most often on the weekends and between 9 and 10pm.

4.) Twubble

Searches your social graph to find FOAFs who you may already know or be interested in following and ranks them according to how many of your friends are already following them.

5.) Twitturly

Powered by Summize, Twitturly keeps track of the 100 most shared links on Twitter over the past 24 hours. A great way of keeping tabs on what's hot amongst the Twitterati.

6.) bkkeepr

A genius use of the Twitter API to enable you to keep track of and share your book reading. Just start following bkkeepr on Twitter and then direct message it with the ISBN of the book your reading, adding 'begin' when you start the book, 'finish' when you're done and page numbers in between times to bookmark, appending notes if you wish.

7.) Tweet Scan

Track keywords on Twitter, with results available via email, RSS and Twhirl. Perfect for keeping tabs of what people are tweeting about you and/or your brand.

8.) Twistori

File under cool rather than useful, Twistori pulls in tweets which pair the personal pronoun with one of six emotive words (love, hate, think, believe, feel, wish) and scrolls them vertically up the screen. Weirdly compelling.

9.) Crowdstatus

Create an at-a-glance page of the latest tweets from a group of your choosing. Here's a crowd of BBC twitterers.

10.) TwitterLocal

Find fellow tweeters within a 1, 2, 3, 5, 10 or 20 mile radius of any location. The results are available as an RSS or XML feed.

That's my top ten. How about you? What are your favourite Twitter apps? Please leave a comment below or post of your own blog and link back here.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

BBC Topics & Genre Index Betas

Another day, another BBC beta. Or two betas to be precise, both of which have been taking up a fair bit of my time and headspace over the past year or so.

One is bbc.co.uk/topics (a companion piece of sorts to bbc.co.uk/programmes, which launched as a beta last October) which aims to automatically aggregate the most relevant and up-to-date content bbc.co.uk has to offer on any given topic, be it a person, place or subject. It's very much a beta at present, covering only the tip of the potential topics iceberg (66 at the time of writing) and is still a bit rough around the edges in places, but the potential is hugely exciting. Matt McDonnell has the full low down over at the BBC Internet Blog.

The other is the first two manifestations of a suite of new genre indexes; one around Gardening, one focused on Arts & Culture (with similar pages for Drama, Food, Science & Nature, Health, Film, Religion, Lifestyle, Ethics, Comedy, Entertainment, Parenting and History all in the pipeline). These new indexes replace a disparate assortment of existing genre homepages with a much more coherent portfolio, balancing consistent navigational elements and layout with distinctive visual design in line with the new 'visual language' of bbc.co.uk. These elements include a main promo area consistent with the new BBC homepage and a 'TV and Radio Programmes' module, automatically pulling in relevant episodes from bbc.co.uk/programmes. Props to David Kidger, Alex Youngs, Richard Cable, Adam Powers, Michelle Butler, Ian Hamilton, Al Boley and Peter Barclay.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Future of public service broadcasting lectures

Having yesterday criticised bbc.co.uk/future for having appropriated a legacy URL, today I'd like to commend it to you (or at least the content that resides there). As part of Ofcom's review of public service broadcasting, the BBC has invited a trio of broadcasting veterans to share their views on the topic and they make for a fascinating watch/read. And thanks to the BBC's marvelous new Embedded Media Player (EMP), you don't even need to leave the comfort of this blog (just don't ask how long it took me to get it to work with the notoriously temperamental Blogger).

Sir David Attenborough

Stephen Fry

Will Hutton

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Virtual moonbeams: the impossible task of capturing the web

Unquestionably one of the most significant consequences of the digital age has been the wholesale transformation of the archival business. A business which was once dominated by the maintenance of intricate card catalogues and the ultimately futile battle to preserve physical media (e.g. books, newspapers, canvases, wax cylinders, photographic film, magnetic tapes) has been turned on its head by the ability to create a perfect digital copy of almost anything, which can then be stored, accessed, duplicated and distributed, all without a degradation in quality. Coupled with cheap and abundant storage, there is seemingly no longer any reason why media should be lost, as has happened so many countless times in the past.

Or is there...?

Another major consequence of the digital age has been a relentless proliferation of data and a gradual shift from static to dynamic publishing. The early boast of CD-ROM manufacturers that it was possible to store the entire Encyclopedia Britannica on a single disc seems wonderfully quaint in the light of the internet's many petabytes of data; data which isn't republished on an annual or quarterly basis, but is constantly growing and changing.

In the early days of the web it seemed almost achievable to maintain some sort of an archive by crawling the web and taking snapshots, which led to the creation of the Internet Archive's marvelous Wayback Machine, which has archived an incredible 85 billion web pages from 1996 to the present. However, even this gargantuan effort is riddled with holes, dependent as it is on data from Alexa. Even the pages which have been crawled and archived often have missing images or other non-HTML components (see the original BBC Radio 5 Live homepage), which leads us to a new challenge facing the would-be web archivist: the move from static to dynamic web pages.

This shift can be illustrated by the recent changes to the BBC homepage. Although not actually dynamically published (BBC Programmes provides an example of genuine dynamic publishing), the BBC homepage has changed from a single page (two pages if you count the International version), with discreet updates which could be tracked and logged, to a customisable page of feeds and modules with thousands, if not tens of thousands, of possible permutations. What's more, most other major sites are much further down the dynamic, data-driven road than the BBC and are effectively just big databases, spitting out data on request (often to a variety of platforms), rather than assembling and publishing discrete webpages.

Of course, the shift towards dynamic pages isn't the only challenge to archiving the web. Other obstacles include subscription services, which either hide content behind a paid-for wall (e.g. FT.com) or require regular payment for media to be maintained (I've often wondered what will happen to my Flickr photos when death or bankruptcy forces me to stop paying my annual Pro account subscription). Use of the lowly robots.txt file and nofollow attribute will also ensure a big chunk of the web isn't automatically crawled and captured.

The deletion of content and reuse of URLs are two other major problems. I was hoping to link to the BBC's 'Book of the Future' in my previous post on collaborative storytelling, but was alarmed to discover that not only had the site been taken down, but the URL which had been used to promote the site (bbc.co.uk/future) was now redirecting to a page on the future role of public service broadcasting.

So, how do you solve a problem like archiving the web? The two most likely solutions to my mind are 1.) a massive, open, SETI@home-style distributed networking approach 2.) Google does it. Whilst the former is unquestionably more ideologically appealing, the latter seems infinitely more likely. Unashamedly on a mission to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful", Google already keeps a temporary archive in the form of its Google cache and discrete archives around some of it's products (e.g. News, Zeitgeist). The company did register a raft of archive related domain names (e.g. googlearchive.com) in September 2006, prompting a brief flurry of speculation, which quickly died down (after all, you can't read too much into Google's domain registrations, as this compendium demonstrates - thesecretofburritos.com, anyone...?)

One service which probably isn't about to revolutionise the wholesale archiving of the web, but may just be a portent of the future, is iterasi. Originally unveiled at DEMO in January and launched as a public beta last month, iterasi is a dynamic bookmarking service which, in their own words, "makes it simple for any Web user to save the dynamically generated pages that are increasingly becoming the bulk of today's Web experience". The service works by means of a browser plug-in (IE 7 or Firefox 2, but currently PC only - although they confirmed by e-mail that they're working on a Mac-compatible version) which enables you to "notarize" any page - saving it to your iterasi account, complete with the description and tags of your choosing, from where it can be viewed, emailed and embedded. Below is a "notary" of the BBC homepage, captured at 9:07 this morning.

I think it's a fantastic service and can't wait for the Mac-compatible plug-in so I can fully integrate it with my online life. Whether it marks the start of a more nuanced approach to capturing the dynamic web, only time will tell. The smart money, as ever, is on Google.