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Google has announced their new Page Speed Service. In essence, it’s a combination of proxy servers, Content Delivery Networks (CDN), and web page optimizers which Google states will produce speed gains of 25-60% for most websites.

The service is being offered to a limited set of web developers at no cost. After the trial period, Page Speed will be released to everyone and, although there are no details, “pricing will be competitive” (source: Official Google Code blog).

To use the service, it’s simply a matter of registering and adding a new DNS CNAME record to your domain. As well as providing a gzipped proxy server for static files, the service can also rewrite your pages for web performance best-practices:

  • CSS files can be combined, minimized, and moved to the HTML head
  • JavaScript files can be combined and minimized using Google’s Closure Compiler
  • images can scaled and optimized

All features are optional so you can, for example, disable the Closure Compiler if it breaks your JavaScript code.

Google provides a page test comparison service at www.webpagetest.org/compare. It estimated that SitePoint.com’s home page would enjoy a 13% speed increase — I suspect that’s primarily owing to JavaScript file concatenation.

Tremendous or Troublesome?

Depending on the price, the Page Speed Service could be ideal for inefficient static pages running on slow servers. It may be more cost-effective than spending money on further development or hosting.

Unfortunately, there are a few downsides:

  • Bare domains are not supported, i.e. you must use www.domain.com rather than domain.com. That’s a shame — I’ve been dropping the “www” from my sites.
  • HTTPS pages are not supported.
  • Flash, streamed audio, streamed video and files over 50MB are not supported.
  • POST requests greater than 2MB are not supported.
  • You’re unlikely to experience significant speed gains on web applications running server-side code.
  • Domains hosted on Blogger, Google Sites or Google App Engine are not supported.

Speaking as a web developer, the service makes me slightly uncomfortable. Like many, I ensure my sites are optimized by combining files, minimizing the code, reducing HTTP requests and using CDNs where possible. For Page Speed to be attractive, I wouldn’t want to lose control, configuration would have to be easy, I wouldn’t want my code to be rewritten, and the price would have to be cheaper than upgraded hosting.

Risk is another factor which needs to be assessed. Will Page Speed offer additional redundancy or two points of failure? I suspect it will depend on the quantity of static vs generated content on your website.

Finally, are you willing to hand your website keys to Google? Their services are more reliable than most, but this is a new product which could experience teething problems. Conspiracy theorists will also see this as another step toward Google’s global domination. Google Search considers page speed factors so could the company become an all-powerful web host which undermines sites not using their network?

Technically, Google Page Speed an amazing solution which should boost the download speeds for most sites — especially those which are inefficiently coded. However, I’m not convinced many good web developers will adopt it. And would bad developers understand the service or care enough to recommend it?

Time will tell if Google’s Page Speed Service is a success. Please let us know your opinions…

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Google wants Chrome to be a clean distraction-free browsing experience. They’re possibly about to take their most radical step yet. Interface minimalism will reach it’s ultimate zenith with the removal of the address bar.

Madness?

Perhaps. But Mozilla are considering the same UI move.

The idea has received an overwhelmingly negative response from technical users. However, before you reach for your soapbox, be aware that it’s only a proposal which may never see the light of day. If it does happen, it will almost certainly be an option and “compact view” might only be permitted on application tabs. When enabled, the user may have to double-click a tab to view the URL.

So why does Google think a 30-pixel gain is so important? It would provide an extra 5% of space on some tablet and netbook screens, but there are deeper reasons…

I use the address bar. You probably use it too. But many users don’t. Non-technical users rarely understand URLs; it’s plainly obvious when you observe them type www.whatever.com into Google’s search box. So why retain a feature few people use?

We should also consider how web use is changing. We know the browser is a separate application but it’s likely to evolve as operating system vendors attempt a more integrated approach. Icons, application tabs and pinned sites are just the start. The distinction between online and offline is already blurred and, within a few years, users won’t know or care where an application resides.

There’s also been a noticeable shift in internet marketing. While companies still promote their URL on advertising media, many now publish more memorable search keywords for Google or Facebook.

Finally, there are commercial incentives. Without the bar, users must resort to a search engine; they’ll aways see a page of results and revenue-paying adverts before reaching their destination.

But what about the drawbacks? If you can’t see the address bar, it’s more effort to enter a URL. If users really don’t want the bar, it can usually be hidden or they can switch to full-screen mode (F11 in most browsers).

Web developers also depend on the URL — especially when testing web applications or REST services. Removing the bar will make our lives more difficult.

Finally, without the address bar, it’s more difficult to ensure you’re on the correct site or check security settings. Those involved in phishing scams will be eagerly anticipating the UI change.

The idea makes me uncomfortable. Users may not understand URLs, but removing the bar won’t help them learn. I’m sure many car drivers don’t understand hydraulics but that’s not a reason to remove their brakes (OK — bad metaphor, but a web without URLs is not without danger).

I’m all for UI simplification, but this seems like a step too far. If it happens, Google should rename their browser: “Chrome-less” would be more apt.

What do you think? Should the address bar go? Could it be an option? Are the risks too great?

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The tech media has spent the vast majority of the last week focused on Google’s newest product, an ambitious platform called Google+ that the company hopes will break through their dry spell in the social arena and make them competitive.

It’s early days — for many people it’s next to impossible to even get in — but things are looking positive. The app has been met by a largely positive reception and my stream shows no sign of slowing down as users keep posting after the novelty wears off.

Circles

Circles is a foundational feature of Google+, and it’s what makes it so different from other social networks — and bridges the gaps between them. With Circles, you control who you share what information with, making mutual relationships where intimate information can be shared, Facebook-style, a possibility, while still allowing the unidirectional model of Twitter that allows you to follow people you find interesting without them having to follow you back.

The interface for organizing your Circles is pretty cool too, but I don’t think it’s the animations that’s blowing people away.

If I want to make a post that is viewable only by my family members, I can. If I want something to be viewable by the public, that’s possible too. There are no “all or nothing” scenarios here as there are with Facebook. This means Google can perform the roles of both Twitter and Facebook and puts it in a very powerful position.

The Circles interface.

Stream

The stream is where you can view incoming information. It’s much like the Facebook news feed or your Twitter stream, but Circles gives you control over what you’re looking at here — it’s not just for deciding who to share content with.

In the screenshot below I’m viewing content that has been shared by people I know from my role at The Next Web. I can easily jump between Friends, Family, Acquaintances, or the Following Circle that’s like a bucket for interesting people I’ve never met.

As is the de facto standard today, the stream updates in real-time. There are some issues that Google engineers are actively working to fix — old posts tend to float to the top more easily than on other networks.

The Google+ stream is the equivalent of your Facebook news feed.

Sparks

Sparks is billed as one of the main features of Google+ but doesn’t get as much airtime at the moment. That’s because it’s one of the few areas where Google seems to have not invested much effort into creating something truly useful. Sparks are feeds of information based on defined topics, but if you take a look in the screenshot below where I’m looking at the pre-defined Spark called “Films” there’s no curation to the content. The second result has something to do with a sniper shooting a civilian who was filming him in Syria — tragic, but not exactly what I’m thinking of when I want information about recent films.

This feature could be a lot better. It could make discovering and subsequently sharing interesting information a breeze, but not until the results are much better. This would be a perfect place for some sort of integration with Google Reader, where the content has already been curated by both publishers and subscribers.

The Sparks interface.

Hangouts

Hangouts is one of the most impressive parts of Google+. The underlying technology isn’t that incredible — we’ve had Skype video conferencing for years. But Hangouts can handle ten or twenty people at a time without problems, and more importantly, it’s not the technology but the execution that makes this feature impressive. Video calls need to be arranged and specific people need to be called in, but with Hangouts, anyone from selected Circles can drop in and out. It’s an evolving social space like your local bar, not a rigid call structure, and that distinction is important. It makes Hangouts pretty revolutionary.

You're given a chance to fix your hair before you enter a Hangout.

API

No doubt you’re wondering: when’s the API coming? Google says it will be here soon, and if they’re telling the truth they’ll have introduced an API much faster than Facebook did. It’ll be interesting to see what sort of apps come out of Google+ that weren’t possible using other social platforms.

There have been clues that Google+ Games is coming, and rumors that there’s a partnership with social gaming giant Zynga involved. Will Google+ be the next platform for casual game developers to tackle? We’ll have to wait and see, but I’m leaving at the first hint of Farmville spam.

What do you think about Google+?

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Google, in the wake of their Google+ testing phase, have also been rolling out other Interface changes, namely within the search results.

Game Changing AdWords?

By now, almost every user will have the black bar that spans the page width across the top. Aside from some basic color changes to the Advanced Search menu on the left hand side, there’s one enormous change that is likely to impact hundreds of thousands of businesses.

In not only the search results, but the AdSense displayed on the top or right of the page, the URL has been moved to under the Anchor Text. We can only speculate that they have been testing this on a limited number of people for some time, and furthermore can only imagine how it will impact clickthrough rates for people using AdSense.

Also worthy of mention is the Google logo, search box and magnifying glass button are now in a light grey area.

How do you feel about these changes? What do you think will be the impact on organic search results and clickthroughs?

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Google has stressed the importance of quality content on multiple occasions. In May they published a blog post titled “More guidance on building high-quality websites” where they outlined what counts as high-quality content. Some of the advice:

  • Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
  • Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
  • Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
  • Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?

Google clearly places value on quality content, but how do you programmatically determine quality content? That might be where PostRank comes in‚ their technology analyzes blog posts for engagement analysis, or how the blog’s audience engages with the content.

Google’s purchase of PostRank gives them the technology to analyze content for audience engagement similar to how their PageRank algorithms analyze websites for link popularity. The technology will be finding its way into several of Google’s products in the near future, such as Analytics and Reader. But PostRank will also likely be used to determine organic search engine ranking.

What does the Google PostRank acquisition mean for you and me?

Google is Going More Social

Google has already been moving in that direction, adding a +1 button for user feedback in search results and by tying all employees bonuses to the company’s success in the social space. It’s clear Google is serious about being a major contender in social. PostRank gives them the ability to measure how people interact with content, essentially giving them a social “quality score” that they can use to judge the content’s quality.

Less Emphasis on Links

PageRank is going to play a lesser role in determining page quality and organic ranking in the coming years. Incoming links are definitely one major factor in the popularity and quality of a web page, but they are too easily manipulated. J.C. Penney and BMW have been in the news for buying links and other “black-hat” strategies to increase PageRank, and they’re just the high-profile examples. Thousands of companies purchase links or setup their own link farms to manipulate PageRank and improve their position on Google.

Social engagement is much more difficult to fake. Shares on Facebook and Twitter (and to a lesser extent comments on blog posts) are not completely anonymous – they require users login details. Google will be able to determine how popular content is with real web users, which is likely a better indicator of quality than backlinks.

More Social Analytics

We should also see more social analytics data show up in Google Analytics and Feedburner products following the integration of the PostRank technology. PostRank’s publisher analytics data shows number of mentions on social platforms such as Twitter, Digg and Delicious as well as who shared the content.

The information is valuable in determining what kind of content is more likely to be shared (or go viral). As social grows and drives more traffic, this will become just as important as determining which content gets searched most frequently, helping us to write content that is more likely to be shared. In turn, writing content that is more likely to be shared will probably influence organic search engine rankings as well.

More Third-Party Integrations

PostRank is already used to determine quality and ranking on a number of prominent online lists, including the AdAge Power 150. Google effectively put a stamp of approval on PostRank’s technology – expect to see more third parties using PostRank to help them evaluate individual content or entire websites.

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Chrome 12 was released last week. You didn’t notice? Few people did. I hadn’t intended writing this article but a few people on Twitter convinced me otherwise (thanks @Mahen23). To start, let’s take a look at the usual list of improvements:

  • hardware-accelerated 3D CSS
  • the ability to analyze and delete Flash cookies within Chrome
  • a new safe browsing feature which protects against malicious file downloads
  • improved synchronization of browser settings
  • better screen reader support
  • new PDF save and print buttons
  • launch installed apps from the Omni-bar
  • 14 security holes plugged.

Chrome 12 also marks the end of an era: Gears has gone. Google Gears was launched in 2007 but development was abandoned a year later. The plug-in provided local data storage, JavaScript threading, desktop integration and geo-location but these have been superseded by standard HTML5 technologies.

Built-in JavaScript De-obfuscation

Merging and minifying JavaScript files has several benefits:

  1. Files, sizes and download times are reduced.
  2. Code processing speed can be improved.
  3. It hides your cutting-edge scripts from prying eyes.

Unfortunately, a minified script is impossible to debug. The code is an indecipherable mess contained on few lines which cannot have breakpoints set. Here’s an example from Google Analytics:

Chrome script debugger

Nasty. However, a quick right-click option will de-obfuscate the script into lovely readable source code:

Chrome script de-obfuscation

Built-in de-obfuscation is incredibly useful, although there are a couple of hitches:

  1. JavaScript minifiers often replace long function and variable names with shorter alternatives, e.g. MyLongFunctionName() becomes A(). De-obfuscation can never bring back the original names although you should be able to recognize patterns within your own code.
  2. Setting breakpoints on de-obfuscated code is more limited. Functions run in response to an event or timer can be analyzed. However, it’s not possible to break at code run when the page is loaded since the script has not been de-obfuscated at that point. Let’s hope the Chrome team address the issue in a future version.

For me, this is the most exciting development in Chrome. It may tempt you away from Firebug or Dragonfly when testing live code.

Have you discovered any great new features in Chrome 12?

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Sir Tim Berners-Lee has been in the news this week following his article “Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality” which appeared in Scientific American.

The web’s inventor criticized Apple and it’s proprietary ‘iTunes’ addresses:

You can’t make a link to any information in the iTunes world —- a song or information about a band. You can’t send that link to someone else to see. You are no longer on the Web. The iTunes world is centralized and walled off. You are trapped in a single store, rather than being on the open marketplace. For all the store’s wonderful features, its evolution is limited to what one company thinks up.

However, his biggest concerns regard for the social networks Facebook, LinkedIn, and Friendster:

The Web as we know it is being threatened in different ways. Some of its most successful inhabitants have begun to chip away at its principles. Large social-networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web.

If we, the Web’s users, allow these and other trends to proceed unchecked, the Web could be broken into fragmented islands. We could lose the freedom to connect with whichever Web sites we want.

Sir Tim’s main complaint is that, although these sites build amazing databases from your data and connections, they do not share that information. Your Facebook data is siloed on Facebook — it cannot be exported or used by another application (other than those within Facebook itself).

Google has also questioned Facebook’s ethics. A Facebook user attempting to import GMail contacts is now shown the message:

Hold on a second. Are you super sure you want to import your contact information for your friends into a service that won’t let you get it out?

Although we strongly disagree with this data protectionism, the choice is yours. Because, after all, you should have control over your own data.

The Facebook phenomenon

Facebook is the most-used site on the Web with more than 500 million active users. It’s growth has been exponential — people who joined persuaded their friends to join.

I have to admit I’m not a Facebook fan, but I eventually succumbed. The main reason: friends and colleagues were using Facebook to send messages and organize events. Irritatingly, the site would email me to say “you have a message” … but not let me access the information until I became a member. I suspect many people sign-up for similar reasons — even Sir Tim has a Facebook account!

The system’s ease, third-party applications and sheer volume of users makes it tough for other social networks to compete. For some people, Facebook is the Web.

Who owns your data?

You. Many countries — including those in the EU, the UK and Australia — have strict data protection laws. Any organization holding data about you must disclose that information on request. Although, Facebook is based in the US where data legislation is more relaxed, I’m certain they would comply with any demands.

The complaint made by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Google is that Facebook won’t allow data to be accessed programmatically by other systems once a user has granted approval.

Should Facebook share?

Facebook does their utmost to ensure you stay within their site. The service is free and advertising is the primary source of revenue. There’s no technical reason why they couldn’t expose data, but sharing with another service would come at the expense of Facebook.com. Twitter is a well-known example: many tweets are sent using third-party clients rather than the Twitter.com website.

There’s also the complex issue of data protection. Facebook probably knows more about you and your relationships than many of your closest friends and relatives! The company has been slammed for dubious privacy policies, so it’s difficult to accuse them of not sharing enough.

Will Facebook destroy the Web?

Facebook is a commercial company: their a goal to gain users and make them stay. They wouldn’t hesitate to wipe the Web so only Facebook.com remained.

I understand Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s concerns. Facebook’s size makes it a social networking monopoly with the power to exploit or close off areas of the Net. However, many companies have tried to dominate the Web before: most failed because they forgot that it’s the users who have real control.

The Web’s success owes much to Facebook but, ultimately, users are fickle; they will leave if they’re bored, find a better service or become frustrated by closed-data policies. Facebook’s decline would be just as impressive as it’s growth.

What do you think? Should we be concerned about major websites not sharing user data? Or will their policies doom them to failure?

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There are more URL shortening services than URLs to shorten*. TinyURL launched in 2002, but Twitter’s 140 character limit led to dozens of alternatives including bit.ly, is.gd, snipurl.com, Tweak and the utterly absurd urlshorteningservicefortwitter.com

Do we need another? Google thinks so and has publicly launched goo.gl. The service has been integrated with other Google applications since December 2009 but it’s now open to everyone.

Goo.gl has a major advantage over the other options: it’s backed by a company which is unlikely to cease trading any time soon. As tr.im users are only too aware, a closed service leads to linkrot — all your shortened URLs disappear in a puff of electronic smoke. As a business model, URL shortening requires huge resources and makes little money.

As well as stability, Google also claims security and speed. Spam links are automatically removed, up-time is excellent, and you’ll rarely encounter a slow response.

Statistics fans will also love the reports. I created this link for SitePoint.com — goo.gl/Qm9S. Click it and you’ll see your data instantly appear at goo.gl/info/Qm9S.

Still not convinced? How about automated QR code generation? Simply add .qr to the shortened URL to view the image, i.e. goo.gl/Qm9S.qr. Rather than entering a web address, a smartphone user can scan this image and be forwarded to the SitePoint home page.

Whatever your opinion of Google’s ambitions or URL shortening as a concept, it’s difficult to deny the benefits of goo.gl. Rival services will certainly suffer, but it’s not as though they had a viable business in the first place.

Will you switch to goo.gl? Do you know of a service offering better facilities? Is URL shortening swamping the web with unnecessary HTTP redirects?

* Obviously, that can’t be true but you get the point!

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Even the most ardent Google basher has a GMail account. What’s not to like? It’s fast, free, offers several GB of storage, and has one of the best spam filters available. It’s great — even if you only use it for throw-away website registrations.

However, one of the more controversial features is “conversation view”. This groups related messages into threads and it’s been the only option since day 1. It’s a hotly-debated topic: the view works well, but takes a little mental re-configuration if you’re used to a traditional inbox such as (pre-2010) Outlook or other email clients.

According to Google’s blog:

We really hoped everyone would learn to love conversation view, but we came to realize that it’s just not right for some people.

Many people simply prefer a non-threaded inbox. If you’re in that group, you’ll be pleased to hear that Google has made conversation view optional. To change it:

  1. Click the “Settings” link at the top-right of the screen.
  2. On the General tab, select Conversation on or off (it’s the sixth option down).

GMail conversation view

(Note that the facility is being rolled out this week so you may have to wait another day or two before it appears. Business users should ensure “Enable pre-release features” is selected in the Google Apps control panel.)

It’s a welcome addition. I know several people who abandoned or struggle with GMail because conversation view is too different to their previous experiences. Automated threading has benefits — especially if you receive a lot of mail — but standard inboxes can be easier to understand and work well for many users.

But seriously Google, it’s taken 6 years implement this option! Better late than never, I suppose.

Do you love or hate threaded email views? Did you abandon GMail because of it? Does the new option encourage you retry the service?

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It’s Google’s 12th Birthday. You’d probably realized that if you’ve visited the search engine’s home page — the logo has been replaced by an image of a cake created by American artist Wayne Thiebaud.

Although Google celebrate September 27 as their official birthday, the company was incorporated on September 4, the first technical specification appeared on September 20, and the first employee was hired on September 21, 1998. The Google.com domain name was registered on September 15, 1997.

Google 12th Birthday

Whatever you think of the company, it’s difficult to imagine a web without Google. Things would have been very different had Microsoft, Netscape or any other company dominated the landscape. Most of us use the search engine and several other products such as GMail, Docs, Analytics, Adsense, Reader, or Chrome. Google already produces Android, their mobile platform, and Chrome OS should appear within the next few months.

The company and profits have grown exponentially, which is incredible when the majority of Google’s output is given away for free. It’s a model much envied by the old shrink-wrap software producers.

Happy 12th Birthday Google. The first 12 years have been amazing — what will you achieve by 2022?