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Bridgette Kinney for The First

The First is one of our local banks. They hired me to take pictures of a local potter, Bridgette Kinney. The product of that will be in the mail in the next couple of weeks but Bridgette has a PDF on her web site. So I figured it’s OK to show the work here, too.

My Nephew Quentin

I went back to Pennsylvania for Christmas. Almost ready to leave, I asked my two nephews if I could take their pictures. Quentin was cool with it. Here he is.

Apples In Snow, an old favorite

I took this picture years ago and it continues to be a favorite, for me and others. My mother has asked me to print another round of notecards with it for her. And she’s just heard from an old friend who bought a print of it, which the friend still treasures.

Behind every picture there’s a story but this one is pretty simple: I was walking in Camden in an early snow, turned into the park and walked along, enjoying the view. I saw this apple tree above the harbor and shot a couple of pictures, all the while feeling that there was some Zen or Hokusai quality to it.

Normally, a photographer takes LOTS of pictures and I’m usually no exception. But in this case, I just had a feeling that this was enough. I couldn’t improve on it, those reds and yellows, the jumble of branches. I do wish I’d tasted one of the apples though.

Apples In Snow, Camden, Maine

Time to ban WWW

OK, I’m not advocating banning the web, the internet, etc.

Just that we need to STOP USING the “www” that used to be the beginning of any web address.

Why ban it? Because it’s completely unnecessary and can cause problems.

Search Engine Problems

It became clear to me a couple of years ago that Google had problems with duplicate content. Two sites that were pretty much the same were seen as trying to game the system and get better search-engine ranking than they deserved.

And then it became clear that (at least in some instances) it viewed http://www.website.com and http://website.com as two different sites. If there are two sites that have identical content (which is how Google was seeing it) Google would downgrade the sites’ rankings and they could get less traffic.

Addressing Problems

When a server is not properly configured, it’s actually possible that http://www.website.com/ and http://website.com/ will point to different places. Or (and this actually happened to me today) one of them will lead to the website and the other will lead to a server error: Cannot find the site you’re looking for.

Why? Because someone set up the server to find it with the “www” but neglected to set up the other version. It’s stupid, it should never happen, but it still does.

A Little History

Contrary to what we now see as “the internet,” there was an internet before “the web.” There were various protocols and they were designated by the prefix. So there was a time when there was lots of use of things like ftp.mysite.com, gopher.mysite.com, etc. I’ve forgotten most of them (thankfully) but there were lots.

When the “world-wide web” came along in the early ’90s, it needed a new prefix and “www” was chosen. Isn’t it funny how “world-wide web” sounds so completely dated now?

Testing Your Site

Testing is really simple: go to http://www.yoursite.com/ and http://yoursite.com/

Obviously, you’ll want to replace your own domain name there.

The best result is that whichever one you type in, you are redirected to one or the other. If you go to http://www.jimdugan.com for example, you’ll notice that the address changes immediately to http://jimdugan.com. You’ve been redirected! You probably didn’t notice, and that’s good.

The good thing is that both addresses actually get you to the same content. But Google doesn’t see it as two different sites or duplicate content and that’s also very good.

So what’s the best practice to solve this problem? Pick one (with or without “www”) and have the other one redirect.

Re-Directing the Right Way

There are lots of ways to redirect from one URL to another. You can have the HTML page do the redirect but it’s not a good idea. For a full technical review of the process (much better than I can do), see this blog post about the 301 Redirect.

Do It Without Code

I’m a fairly technical guy but I like to leave the code to the people who really understand it. And hosting companies (at least the good ones) usually understand it better than the rest of us. I use http://dreamhost.com and their control panel gives me the choice.

Here’s the wonderfully simple section of the domain hosting form on my control panel.

If your hosting doesn’t have this or something like it, you should ask for it. Or switch to Dreamhost. Tell them I sent you.

Stonington 2010

How I spent my summer vacation. My aunt, Betsy, rented a house in Stonington and had room for me. Also there were her son, Nathan, and his son, Nic, and daughter, Lydia.

The Camden Harbormaster posted on Facebook:

Daily Def: “SLUSH FUND”-slush was the unpromising name for fat scraped off the top of the barrels of meat. The crew found it perfect for greasing masts to make sail hoisting easier and for preserving leather fittings. The cook, unhappy about this, would secret it in his ‘slush fund’. It was a prerequisite so far as he was concerned. He sold it ashore, mostly to candle makers and people in the fish and chip trade.

Who knew? Well, I did, sorta. The schooner Mary Day gets her masts slushed a couple times a year. Usually, it’s the youngest (lightest) member of the crew who gets outfitted head to toe in disposable gear, then strapped into a boatswain’s chair (boson’s chair, really just a board strung between some rope). Then this person is hoisted to the top of the mast with a bucket full of slush. These days, slush is not meat grease but Vaseline petroleum jelly. They start at the top, smearing Vaseline all over the mast. When a section is finished, they yell to the deck, where someone standing by lowers them a few feet.

Here’s Madeline slushing the mast:

Madeline slushing the mast of the Mary Day.

Search Engines Continued

I continue to stand by all I said in a previous post on the field of “Search Engine Optimization” and I have a few posts to link to that back up what I said:

Chris Coyier’s Thoughts on SEO podcast

This rambles on for 40 minutes and much of it will only be relevant to web designers who understand what he’s talking about. And the links below are from his post but with some comments from me.

Common-Sense SEO Checklist

Also from Chris, an older post but quite relevant

Derek Powazek on Spammers, Evildoers and Opportunists

[pullquote]Make something great. Tell people about it. Do it again.[/pullquote]

This is a real rant and may offend some (with language and/or anti-SEO arguments) but I agree with all of it. Most of all, I agree with his “one true way” to get good web traffic: “Make something great. Tell people about it. Do it again.” That really is the key. People are looking for quality content. Deliver it and they will come to you and tell other people to go to you. Also worth reading (but perhaps more rant-like) are his follow-ups: here and here

There are some simple “best practices” for web designers to do to help the search engines rank a web site but the bottom line is that on the web, the three most important things are: CONTENT, CONTENT, and CONTENT.

A couple of almost-random thoughts about domain names (like jimdugan.com):

1. Choose it carefully

Here is my best advice on choosing domain names:

.com is best almost always (as opposed to .net, .info, .org, etc.) . People remember it, it is commercial (so not best for non profits). It’s the default.

Choose the shortest.

Choose the easiest to remember and SPELL. (Write your radio ad. Do you have to spell the domain name? Repeat it? If so, change the domain name.)

Maybe you have some cool foreign word you want to use? OK but it’s likely to be hard for your customers to spell. So it might be a liability in the domain name. Deal with it and don’t say I didn’t warn you. OK, there are exceptions (google, skype, etc.) but they succeed for their own reasons (short, catchy, lots of startup money).

Brainstorm on it and come up with a bunch of alternatives then ask friends. Go for ease of use, not cute or cool.

1b. Do your searching carefully

One odd thing you have to watch out for: There are many places on the internet to “check availability” of a domain name. Some of them are legitimate; some not so much. Some sites appear to capture the domain names being searched and either use them or sell them. How does this work? Let’s say today you search for “somedomain.com” and it’s available. If you grab it then, you’re fine. If you think on it for 24 hours, someone else has grabbed it. They’ll put some ads on it and sit on it for a while, checking to see if there’s traffic potential.

There’s an odd loophole in domain registration that makes this possible: when you register a name, you have a few days to undo the registration and get your money back. They’re taking advantage of this, grabbing a domain for a few days to see if it’s worth anything.

How to know if a site is doing this? Ask around for reputable hosting. I like dreamhost.com and it’s NOT one that I have heard mentioned as doing the above highjinks.

Some quick background basics here: To have a web site, you need at least two things: domain name and hosting. Hosting is the space on a computer where your site lives and is available to the internet 24/7 (we hope). Hosting companies have buildings full of computers (servers), most of them running many different web sites. The domain name on the other hand (jimdugan.com, google.com, etc.) needs to be registered. The company doing this may or may not be the same as the hosting company. Years ago, there was only one registrar: NetworkSolutions.com. That monopoly broke up but NS still does both registration and hosting. Bottom line: if you have a website, be sure you understand the difference between hosting and registration and keep both of them up-to-date.

2. Guard it carefully

Most domain registrations are renewed annually and a good hosting company will automate the process nicely for you, so you hardly have to think about it. But many things get in the way of this:

  • We think that “handy reminder” email is some kind of spam
  • We’ve changed email and/or snailmail addresses, so don’t get the notices
  • We don’t recognize the name of the registrar

In fact, I’ve spent most of today dealing with a situation where all of the above were true. It’s been a nightmare.

My friend Pedro (not his real name) signed up for several years of registration all at once, to save a few bucks. By the time he needed to renew (Jan. 2, 2010) he had:

  • completely forgotten that his domain needed to be registered annually
  • forgotten any relation to the company that was asking him to renew
  • moved twice, changed banks and credit cards
  • ignored or deleted the emails asking him to renew, assuming they were spam
  • And when his domain went down due to registration not being renewed, the only email address that the registrar had on record failed to work.

So he was in deep water. Luckily, after several calls to the registrar, a solution: fill out a form and send it with a scan of a government issued photo ID to this address. Wait three days.

We’ll see.

3. Make sure you actually own it.

One other thing to be careful about is companies that register a domain but keep your name off the registration. This is less common these days but it used to be the norm for some outfits. I lost two domain names for just this reason. The company that I asked to register the names went out of business, with their email address as the only contact name attached to the domain.

4. Can Search Engines Read the Domain Name?

Yes, no, maybe, probably. They’re doing a pretty good job but they can’t do much to parse odd words. Google probably doesn’t know whether jimdugan.com is about someone named “Jim Dugan” or “Ji Mdugan” but they would if it was jim-dugan.com. Likewise mainekayaking.com should probably be hyphenated if Google is your main concern. But personally, I’m not crazy about hyphenating a domain name. It always seems awkward to say “JimHyphenDuganDotCom.” Ick.

Your domain name is your brand, your address, the way for people to find you and find out everything they need to know about you. So make sure it’s not a struggle. Make it fun and memorable but this above all: make it easy.

I prefer Acadia in the off season. From October to about May, it can feel like I have it all to myself. Wandering that magical mile from Otter Cliffs to Thunder Hole with almost nobody else around is a real privilege, thrilling and relaxing at the same time.

[slidepress gallery=’acadia’]

Planning a web site: Tips to a friend

Ran into a friend at the supermarket last night. He was headed out and I was headed in.

“Do you still do web sites?” he asked. We talked for a bit and he gave me a business card. I promised to email with some advice and we may get together to talk but it occurred to me that the email I sent him is general information, applicable to everyone. So I include it here. The names have been changed to keep it generic:

As you plan your web site, here’s some basic info to consider (some of which you may already have done):

I started to write this at the end of the email but it occurs to me it’s important and basic enough to move it to the top: What is the mission of the site? And very much related: How will you judge success or failure of the site? What do you offer that’s unique? How will you get the word out to drive traffic to your site?

This might seem obvious (mission: to make money; success judged on whether it makes money) but there’s usually more to it. Lots of business sites succeed based more on customer experience and full service than just the quality of the product. Think of amazon.com’s ability to know pretty well what each customer wants. Think of zappos.com’s way of letting you try on shoes with no risk.

So planning:

Make an outline. It doesn’t need to be fancy and it will not be complete (web sites are always changing and if they aren’t changing, they’re dying). But figure out what your basic pages will be to start and what features you’ll want to have. And as you do this, you will naturally get the pieces together:

Start gathering the parts of the site: text, logo, graphics, photos. In digital form, so you can email it to me or send on disk.

Start planning for commerce: Products, sales tax, shipping, etc. Will each product have its own page or put a few products on a page? Shipping charges are one of the most difficult things to figure out so start early. Paypal is a good way to test the waters of ecommerce and for some is a complete solution. Research Paypal and sign up for a merchant account.

Who is your audience and how will you get them to your site?

Right from the start, you need to plan how to get people to your web site. Here’s some basic advice on that: basics of search-engine optimization.

But you can’t depend entirely on Google or other search engines. So:

Your URL (universal resource locator: yourbusiness.com) is the most important thing to tell people. Just as I told you yesterday: JimDugan.com is how to get hold of me, find out about me, see my work, etc. My phone number, email, etc., is all there. Your URL should be as prominent as you can bear to make it on your packaging, business card, bumper stickers, whatever. Get it out there that this is your address. Call it branding if you want. There are people who see me on the street and say, “Jim Dugan Dot Com” as if it’s my name. Perfect.

Plan for keeping your site current. A site that doesn’t change regularly fails for a few reasons but most simply put: both Google and human beings like sites that are fresh and new, not static and stale. For organizations that have weekly staff meetings, I recommend that a standing agenda item be: What should we add/change on our web site this week? For individuals, I recommend a clipboard with pen on your fridge with the heading: Changes to Web Site.

Design ideas: I ask every new client to come to me with some sites he/she likes and/or would like to emulate. I do not copy other sites but I do like to have some idea what the client’s expectations are. Do you have logos, color schemes, etc. that are already starting to define corporate identity?

Not a complete list but a start.

This picture is the wallpaper on my computer screen and almost everyone who sees it wants to know how it was made.

The word photography means, literally, drawing with light. But “painting with light” is a technique to add a light source during a long exposure. Here’s an example:

ghostship_8700

This is a picture made aboard the schooner Mary Day. We were at anchor in Blue Hill Bay, had just come back from the lobster bake on an island, and everyone was just chilling on deck.

I set up my camera on a tripod, composed carefully, then set the aperture to (I think) about f/16. Then I locked the shutter open.

So the shutter is locked open for several minutes, I’m guessing about five to seven. If I did nothing, I’d get almost no exposure except for the kerosene lanterns and a little of the sunset. It was actually a bit after sunset, so the horizon was pretty dark.

But what I did was: I took out my LED headlamp and turned it on. I shined it on the sail and boom, moving it around to illuminate it more or less evenly. Then I hopped down on the deck and walked around to the people, stopping at each and telling them to stand still while I “painted” them with light. I’d shine the light on their faces, making sure not to let the camera see the light source.

The two men on the left were the first to get painted. As soon as I had finished with them, they moved away, so their legs don’t show up. If they had stayed, they would have blocked a lot of the light of the kerosene lantern on the deck. The third person from the left moved before I could paint him, so mostly, he shows up as just a shadow.

You can see the shadow of a tripod leg on the box with the star on it. I’m not sure what light was casting that shadow.

There’s very little Photoshop work done after the fact, though I did clean up a few light streaks where the light source turned toward the camera.

My one regret is that I didn’t take the cover off the boat’s steering wheel. It’s a pretty wheel, varnished and bright. Next year.