Google + Operator

It’s hard to find anyone that doesn’t default to Google whenever they need to find something on the web. But it’s even harder to find anyone that takes full advantage of Google’s search modifiers. (Admit it, even we get lazy sometimes!) However, some searches absolutely require the ability to focus results, and search modifiers have traditionally been used to do just that.

Consider the following example, taken from the blog Google Operating System. By default, a search for the characters [ai],  Goggle will also match terms like “artificial intelligence”, “Amnesty International”, and “Adobe Illustrator”. Previously, you could replace your query with [+ai] to restrict search results to pages that contained an exact match to [ai]. Sadly, Google recently removed the + operator from their search engine, replacing it with quotation marks: [“ai”]. Although this will force Google to match the exact spelling of the query, it will not force the results to actually contain that exact query.

Let’s examine another example to illustrate this subtle change. Imagine I want to search for ‘pink flying pigs’ and, although I prefer flying pigs that are also pink, what I am really interested in is whether or not they can fly.  Before, I could structure my query like this: pink +”flying pigs”. This would do both an exact match on ‘flying pigs’ and restrict the results to only those hits with ‘flying pigs’. Now that the + operator is no longer available, the query would be structured like this: pink “flying pigs”. This will still do an exact match on ‘flying pigs’, but it will also return pages that don’t have ‘flying pigs’ anywhere in them at all. In other words, quotation marks have only half the functionality of the + operator and there is now no way to quarantee that a particular phrase or term will appear in the search results.

Why is this such a big deal? Long time Google users may remember that when Google first launched, every search was an “AND” search. That is, every term that was entered in the query string was required to appear in the results. About three years ago, Google began ignoring search terms altogether, building on their successful spelling suggestions engine. This effectively changed Google to an “OR” search with more results and less precision. (For more on this, read Andy Baio’s Google kills its other plus, and how to bring it back. ) Google argues that this is an improvement for the mainstream Google user who never uses any modifiers or advanced search features, and they are probably right. But for certain groups of users, like programmers, this change radically impacts the effectiveness of Google searches. Searching for technical documentation is now much less precise and tends to return many more unsatisfactory hits.

There are some alternatives, like Blekko, which allow you to structure a query like this: perl /programming. The phrase following the slash is called a “slash tag”, and ties the query to a specific group of curated sources. Another option for programming issues is StackOverflow, which is part Wiki, Blog, Forum, and Digg/Reddit. DuckDuckGo is another Google alternative, that prides itself on protecting user privacy and Microsoft has it’s offering in Bing. Like most people, I have used Google for years and have generally been very happy with it. But, given the recent changes and the number of alternatives, perhaps it is time to sample something new?

Mobile Redesign – Usability Testing

Usability testing was an important part of our recent redesign of the IU Libraries mobile web site. Below are some of the things we learned by talking to users over the course of three usability sessions this summer.

The overall response to the site was very positive:

  • “Looks nice, is very clear and useful”
  • “Useful and cool, hours and locations especially”
  • “I’m impressed with how fast it is”
  • “I like that it looks like IU Mobile”
  • “I would definitely use this”

We also found some areas for improvement:

Problem: On the Home page, the labels “Find”, “IUCat”, and “News” were often confusing.

What we did: We merged “Find” and “IUCat” into one item named “Search Library Resources”. This was also made easier by the decision to change the homepage from an icon-based layout to a list layout (more room for labels). We also changed “News” to “Library News”.

Home Page Before & After

Problem: Users did not see the “All IUB Libraries” list option at the top of the Hours & Locations page.

What we did: We added a black header to the top of the page with the text “Browse All Libraries”.

Problem: The map on the “Hours & Location” page often confused users. They would not see the yellow and green icons to the right of the labels and didn’t know what the blue icon on the map meant. We wrongly assumed users would know that the blue icon was their current location and had not provided a key for it.

What we did: We moved the existing two icons to the left of their labels and added a new header directly above the map indicating that the blue icon represents the current location of the user. We also added pop-up windows to each icon.

Hours and Locations Before & After

The improvements resulting from usability testing made the final site much more usable and useful. Our future work will focus on expanding access to research tools on mobile devices, broadening the “How Do I?” section of the site, and improving the clarity of the “Hours & Locations” page with regard to the locations of services within the Herman B Wells library.

Under the hood: mechanics of our mobile site

DUX recently launched the redesigned libraries mobile site after several months of researching, testing, and development. One interesting aspect of the project was deciding which development frameworks to use. With the continuing explosion of mobile development, there are new frameworks and micro-frameworks popping up almost weekly. For our project, we decided on the jQuery Mobile JavaScript framework for handling most of the layout and interaction components and the Leaflet JavaScript map library for our various mapping needs. Both choices have turned out well for us.

jQuery Mobile provides many benefits. First, it improves the user experience by providing an interface built upon existing mobile design conventions. It was clear very early in the design process that native applications would not be an option for us, yet users were very responsive to designs that emulated many conventions of native apps like nested lists. jQuery Mobile comes baked with many of these conventions.

Second, jQuery Mobile enjoys all the benefits of the original jQuery library, the most noticeable of which is the way jQuery irons out many of the inconsistencies that exist between various browsers. Before jQuery (or similar libraries like Prototype), web developers would have to write separate JavaScript code for each browser to accomplish frequent tasks like AJAX (which refreshes content without reloading the entire page), or to create various interface effects. Although some work to support cross platform functionality is still necessary in some circumstances, jQuery goes a long way toward providing an abstraction layer that allows the developer to write a single instance of relatively simple code that will handle the differences between browsers automatically.

Third, the combination of these benefits greatly simplifies the client-side development process and enabled us to spend more time conducting usability testing, focusing on information architecture (labeling, arrangement, navigation, etc.), improving access to existing services (databases, catalog, library information), and adding new functionality to enhance the user experience (geolocation).

The Leaflet map library is a recently released open-source map library from Cloudmade. It’s small (under 64 kb minified), well documented, fast, supports CSS3 enhanced map behavior and HTML5 geolocation.  And it’s incredibly easy to use. Initializing a map to detect and mark the user’s location is as simple as using the Leaflet example code below:

If you would like to know more about how we used these two frameworks, post a comment below or drop us an e-mail!

Boston Globe Launches Responsive Design

This week the Boston Globe launched a new web site using what has become known as Responsive Design. Responsive Design was first proposed by Ethan Marcotte, one of the consultants on the Globe project, in the web magazine A List Apart. This design approach focuses on delivering the same content and basic design across multiple devices from desktops to tablets to mobile phones. Technically this is achieved by using fluid grids that adapt to the size of the screen, flexible images and media, and part of the CSS3 specification called Media Queries, which allow web designers and developers to specify certain layout rules based on certain conditions.

Responsive Design has been receiving a great deal of attention since it was first proposed by Ethan, so much so that he expanded his original essay this fall. Despite the increasing numbers of projects using these techniques, the applicability of such an approach to a large scale site has remained largely theoretical. That changed this week. The new site by the Boston Globe shows not only that Responsive Design can work for large sites, but that it can create a greatly improved user experience that is focused on the content and elegantly adapts to whatever device is being used to access that content. The Globe has posted a short video that shows the new site in action and provides some great context for their decision making process. The Filament Group and Upstatement, two partners for the project, have also posted an overview of their experiences with Responsive Design. For other examples using these methods, check out mediaqueri.es. The images below, taken from mediaqueri.es, provide snapshots of how the Boston Globe might look at different screen resolutions.

Password Tips

Password security is becoming increasingly important as individuals move more and more of their personal data into online services. In her Microsoft Small Business center article 5 tips for top-notch password security, Kim Komando offers some password best practices:

  1. Don’t be complacent: Attacks can and do happen.
  2. Know what makes for a bad password.
  3. Get proficient at creating good passwords.
  4. By all means, safeguard your password(s).
  5. Change your password(s) often-as in several times a year.

Of these, it seems many people struggle with number two, knowing what makes for a bad password. Ashlee Vance of the New York Times wrote in January 2010 about the popularity of simple passwords:

According to analysis by security firm Imperva, one out of five Web users still decides to leave the digital equivalent of a key under the doormat: they choose a simple, easily guessed password like “abc123,” “iloveyou” or even “password” to protect their data.

The weakest passwords are those that are short, use only letters and numbers, and are easily memorable or associated with a person’s identity. What goes into a strong password? Some tips include avoiding words found in the dictionary, replacing letters with numbers (think zero instead of the letter “o”), utilizing special characters like “!”, “$”, and “*”, and making passwords longer in order to provide protection from brute force attacks. How long is long enough? In another NYT article this past June, Randall Stross wrote:

Here’s a little quiz: Which is the stronger password? “PrXyc.N54” or “D0g!!!!!!!”?

The first one, with nine characters, is a beaut. Steve Gibson’s page says that it would take a hacker 2.43 months to go through every nine-character combination offline, at the rate of a hundred billion guesses a second. The second one, however, is 10 characters. That one extra character makes it much, much stronger: it would take 19.24 years at the hundred-billion-guesses-a-second rate. (Security researchers have established the feasibility of achieving these speeds with fairly inexpensive hardware.)

Another important consideration is how often passwords should be changed. Ms. Komando recommends changing passwords as often as every 30 days. Also, users should consider using different passwords for different services. Many times hackers are able to access a single user’s entire digital presence because they use the same username and password for all their services. Lastly, none of these measures matter if the password is known by another person!

Mobile Redesign Project Needs Assessment

DUX recently completed a needs assessment as part of our mobile web site redesign project. We surveyed 52 students at several IUB Libraries and asked them to comment on how they use the IU libraries, how they conduct research, and which mobile devices and applications they use. Participants also provided feedback on the current  IU Libraries Mobile Site. A summary of our findings is listed below.

Key Findings

  • 60% of respondents own a smartphone.
  • Undergraduate students appear more likely than Graduate students to own a smartphone.

Respondents' ownership of smartphones

  • Smartphone operating system usage is divided: 57% use Apple iOS, 37% use Android, and 6% use Blackberry OS.
  • 96% of respondents do not own a tablet computer, 76% have no intention of purchasing one, and those that will purchase will do so at least 6 months in the future.
  • 75% of respondents indicated that they visit an IUB Library daily.

Respondents' visits to IUB libraries

  • Library Web Site usage is more divided: Daily 39%, Weekly 24%, Occasionally (every couple of weeks) 24%, Seldom (once or twice a semester) 13%.
  • Respondents reported their most heavily utilized services on the Library Web Site are IUCat and Research Databases.
  • The most requested additions to the IU Libraries Mobile Site are access to IUCat and Research Databases.
  • Facebook, Google, and e-mail were cited as the most frequently used web sites, followed by OnCourse and OneStart.

Respondents' most used websites

Overview of eBook Formats

Electronic Books are becoming more and more popular with the success of eReaders like Amazon’s Kindle and the emergence of tablet computers. Although many readers still prefer paper, eBooks take up less space, are often cheaper, and can provide reading enhancements like flexible font sizing and multimedia. One of the most daunting hurdles to readers that are new to eBooks is the wide array of eBook formats. Here are three that are worth paying attention to:

PDF

The .pdf format was developed by Adobe Systems as a way of preserving document layout across computing platforms. Short for Portable Document Format, .pdf files emulate the traditional structured layout of print books. As a result, it is an excellent format for publications that require tight control of layout, fonts, and images, such as legal or technical documents. The price of this level of precision is a limited ability to resize and reflow text. Originally a proprietary format, Adobe has made .pdf available as an open standard. PDF files are also easily viewable desktop computers using free software like the Adobe Reader.

AZW

The .azw format is the propriety format used by the Amazon Kindle eReader. All eBooks purchased from Amazon’s Kindle Store are delivered in this format, which includes a proprietary Digital Rights Management system that requires users to use a Kindle or Kindle software. Amazon has made its Kindle software available for desktops, smartphones, and tablets, allowing readers to read their books on any device. Unlike the .pdf format, .azw files are “reflowable” and allow readers to adjust the font size, background color, etc., of their eBooks. The Kindle and Kindle software will also read the legacy format on which .azw is based, called Mobipocket (.mobi). Many books at Project Gutenberg are available in this format.

ePub

The .epub format is an open standard developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum. ePub files are reflowable and allow readers to adjust the font size, background color, etc., of their eBooks. The IDPF hopes to finalize the ePub 3 standard by mid-2011, which will include support for embedded video and audio. ePub files are supported by several devices including the iPad, Barnes and Noble Nook, Borders Kobo, and the Sony eReader. The Google Books project and Project Gutenberg both offer books in .epub format.

A note on Digital Rights Management (DRM)

All three of the eBook formats discussed here can come with a variety of proprietary digital rights management encoding that may limit which files may be read on which devices.

Linked Data Resources and Webinars

Linked Data” describes the methods used to structure and interlink data so that they may become more useful. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, gave a TED Talk on linked data in 2009 during which he presents the case for Linked Data as an essential building block in the development of “Web 3.0”, or the Semantic Web. Although the Semantic Web was introduced conceptually nearly 10 years ago, it has only recently begun to gain visibility outside of web science research communities. Below I have listed a few upcoming webinars (some free, some for a fee) that will cover some introductory aspects of Linked Data principles as well as a recently released, free e-book that covers many of the basics of Semantic Web technologies in excellent detail and plain language.

Book: Linked Data: Evolving the Web into a Global Data Space

ASIST Webinars: http://www.asis.org/Conferences/webinars/2011/linked-data.html (March 9 and 15)

ALCTS Webinar: http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/alcts/confevents/upcoming/webinar/cat/031611.cfm (March 16)

Bookmarking Services

Yahoo! caused quite a stir back in December when it announced that the company was planning on sunsetting its social bookmarking service, Delicious. Yahoo! has expressed its commitment to keeping Delicious active until it is sold, but many users have started looking for other options. Although the announcement serves as a reminder of the ephemerality of many online services, it has also created an opportunity for upstart companies to assert themselves on the market. Below is a listing of alternatives that might meet your needs. I use Pinboard myself. It’s quick, simple, charges a small fee, and is profitable. Which means it will be around forever, right?

Post a comment if I missed a bookmarking service that you find particularly useful!

Pinboard

Zootool

Google Bookmarks

Diigo

Instapaper (great for archiving articles)

Readability (also great for archiving)

Xmarks

Mister Wong

The Changing Mobile Landscape

The good people at Mobilefuture.org have published some interesting 2010 year end data on smartphones:

  • 5 Billion apps downloaded, up from 300 million in 2009
  • Twitter grew by 347 percent
  • 200 Million mobile Facebook users
  • 100 million YouTube videos are played on mobile devices DAILY

You can watch their 3 minute review on YouTube below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mCkbrYKQyI

As staggering as these figures seem, the trend toward smartphone ubiquity shows no signs of slowing. Horace Dediu of Asymco.com published an analysis of Gartner’s market data that showed the smartphone market is growing at a rate of 96%. Mr. Dediu predicts that 2011 is poised to be the year that half the U.S. population will be using smartphones.

In fact, smartphones and tablets are on the verge of overtaking PC computing as the primary way people access the internet. In December of 2010, Steve Lohr of the New York Times cited a recent IDC study, writing:

Mainstream adoption, according to IDC, is when a technology moves well beyond 15 percent or so of the market. In 2011, IDC predicts half of the 2.1 billion people who regularly use the Internet will do so using non-PC devices.

The rapid expansion of highly capable mobile computing devices presents several questions for providers of online services. Do we develop for the mobile web or do we develop stand-alone apps? How do we develop a content strategy for mobile devices? How do we port existing services to mobile platforms? Answers to these questions are enigmatic. One thing seems certain, that mobile computing will be to this decade what the PC was to the 1990’s and the internet to the 2000’s. Users now have access to (relatively) inexpensive handheld computers that are orders of magnitude more powerful than the machines that started the internet revolution.

How do you see mobile services impacting Libraries? Have you noticed students or faculty using smartphones or tablets more frequently? How do you use mobile devices in your own life? Post a comment and let us know your thoughts!