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More people are flocking online to get their shopping done these days. But, an online shopper doesn’t necessarily equal genius website navigator. You need to ensure that your business website’s search tools are simple and intuitive for those who are less technologically inclined — or risk losing customers.

About 60% of online purchases result from a customer search, according to ecommerce design solution Volusion. Not only should you do everything you can to land your business in the search engine sweet spot, but you should also optimize your in-site search for convenient user navigation.

The following tips will help improve your ecommerce company’s search functionality, both on-site and via organic search.


1. Navigation Bars and Filters


Usability studies indicate that a user’s eye naturally progresses from left to right; therefore, place navigation bars to the left. Also, you’ll probably have more room for detail if the navigation bar runs down the left side of the screen.

From there, you may choose to expand navigation bars into drop-down boxes that display sub-categories. For instance, a navigation heading displaying “Automotive” might expand into subcategories that include “Carburetors” and “Transmissions.” Just be sure not to get too specific (e.g. “Bi-Xenon Headlamps”) or else the user could become overwhelmed and discouraged.

SEE ALSO: How to Design the Best Navigation Bar for Your Website

Once the user has moved beyond the navigation, he will be taken to a page full of products. Provide a filter option that allows him to narrow products further — by price, color, fabric, most recent, etc.

In addition to pairing products with colorful, high-resolution photos, make sure to include unique, intriguing product descriptions. Not only will the shopper be more intrigued to click through to the main product page, but Google is more likely to prioritize unique product descriptions versus unoriginal content.

Cross-link between product pages and categories. That way, the shopper will more easily find related products, all while spending more time on your site and lowering your bounce rate. Cross-linking is one of the most effective search methods for ecommerce customers, especially those browsing without a clear purchase in mind.


2. In-Site Search Box


If your site has a larger population of product pages, a search box can help with targeted navigation. Follow TasteBook‘s example and consider including brief search hints like “keyword,” “ingredient,” “fabric” or “sport.” Depending on the effectiveness of the tool, the search should bring the shopper to page full of corresponding products.

However, you still want to entice users on a mission to explore the site. Consider a floating sidebar of most popular products or categories that follows a shopper throughout her search or a feed of sales activity, like Fab.com’s social shopping page. And an ecommerce homepage should constantly cycle through featured products, sales and curated content so that repeat customers are more enticed to explore.


3. Organic Search


Speaking of homepages, Google will crawl the pages of a website that have the most SEO juice, which is usually the homepage. Therefore, the pages that you link to your homepage should be the most important. Keep in mind that these pages might not necessarily reflect the categories on your navigation bar. Give prominence to other highly-clicked pages like the “About” page, for instance — they’re more likely to be indexed by Google.

Be sure to index all of your main pages, category pages and even specific product pages. Use Google Webmaster Tools and Webmaster Central to learn how to effectively index pages, then track how users searched for and found those pages. You can even view the ratio of your total URLs compared to how many have appeared in Google’s web index.

In order to maximize SEO, be sure to attach strategic keywords (including long-tail keywords) to your site pages. Use Google’s free Keyword Tool to estimate the traffic you can expect from certain key words and phrases.

Finally, be sure to index user reviews as well — Google favors fresh, user-generated content. For this reason, you may also choose to invite curators to regularly contribute related content to your website, which will not only improve SEO, but will also add a community element to your business.

How does your website design and optimize its search features? Which are the most easily navigable ecommerce sites out there today? Let us know in the comments.


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Back when Google‘s logo still had an exclamation point, its founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin encountered a practical problem. On one hand, they had plans to attend the Burning Man Festival. On the other, they weren’t entirely confident that the site would not crash in their absence. And if it did, there wasn’t anyone at the office to answer the phone while the pair camped out in the desert.

The first Google Doodle — which showed Burning Man’s iconic stick figure popping out of the Google logo — was, in essence, an “out of office” message.

Throughout the next several years, Google started occasionally adding decorations to its logo for holidays like Thanksgiving and Halloween. Sergey Brin filed a patent for those decorations, which he called “systems and methods for enticing users to access a web site,” in 2000. It was granted in 2011.

“Google Doodles” are now an established part of Internet culture. We, Internet users, are delighted to find creative takes on holidays we forgot about, outraged when an event’s Doodle depiction seems off. We played the Google logo guitar so much that Google created a dedicated website for it.

For a long period of time, all Google Doodles were created by a former intern and current employee named Dennis Hwang. The process has since been taken to another level. Here’s what goes into the beloved (and at times bemoaned) Doodles.


The “Google Doodlers”


Jennifer Hom is part of a team of artists (officially “a handful” — more specifically, many fewer than 10), who coordinate and create Google’s Doodles. Their art backgrounds are diverse. One was a feature film animator, another illustrated comic books. Hom recently graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design.

Ideas come from the team, Google’s more than 28,000 employees, users and the news.

“It’s always a surprise,” Hom says. “And we try to pick things that are going to be exciting to our users, whether it was in their childhood or something they learned in school or important events or an important part of their culture.”

Production timelines vary greatly. While the team can theoretically plan for the Fourth of July Doodle all year, current events aren’t current for very long. When NASA found water on the moon in 2009, for instance, Hom’s pitch to Doodle it was accepted around lunchtime — giving her about four hours to conceive and create a Doodle.

Together, the team produced 271 Doodles last year.


Math Nerd Support




Most artists who want to create a guitar that records and plays back music, an image repelled by a cursor or a buckyball that spins when you roll with the mouse are out of luck. Google Doodlers have access to one of the largest pools of computer engineers on the planet.

While Hom says the Google Doodle team has never taken a Google engineer completely off of his or her full time job to work on a Google Doodle, at least one of them, search team software engineer Kris Hom (no relation to Jennifer Hom), regularly dedicates his 20% time to the cause. Some weeks, it ends up being 30%, 40% or 50% time.

When the buckyball design presented a mathematical challenge, for instance, he emailed other engineers on his team who promptly delivered a handful of successful solutions.

Having math nerds on hand also came in handy with the Pi Day Google Doodle, which was designed to look like a mathematician’s notes.

“For that, we had to consult our math experts that are floating around Google … and just make sure that every single curve and every single note that we put on the Doodle was accurate,” Jennifer Hom says.


International Offices


Google has more than 50 domains in 50 different countries, and it creates Doodles specific to many of them. But for a team based in the United States, it’s hard to remember that Miroslav Krleza’s 118th Birthday is being celebrated in Croatia.

Fortunately, Google’s many international domains come with many international offices. Their staffs contribute culturally appropriate Doodle ideas and check Doodles for cultural suitability before they go live.


Doodle Influence


By one 2009 study’s estimate, Google accounts for a whopping 6% of all Internet traffic. Directing the attention of many Internet users to a given topic, be it by Doodle or otherwise, is no little matter of influence.

“There’s always kind of a responsibility in terms of not offending anyone,” Hom says. “We don’t want to put anything too heavy as a Doodle, anything that’s not uplifting.”

Not offending anyone is a feat that’s hard to accomplish, particularly when experts from every niche are using your page as a web launching point. In 2003, an artist made a small error in the depiction of DNA on Google’s homepage. The reaction was powerful enough that Hom still talks about it today, even though the incident predates her Google Doodle debut.

“I’m really afraid of having a DNA moment,” she says.

Research keeps the math, science and history buffs happy, but sometimes the desire to not offend anyone can be self-defeating. Google’s Doodle for gay pride, a rainbow attached to the search bar, only appeared when a user searched for related terms — drawing criticism that the company had put its pride in the closet.


Why Doodle?


Google is not known for its artistic creativity. It’s known for making algorithms that work really well. So why hire a team to dress up the homepage, occasionally distract engineers and open the company to criticism of its portrayal of events?

“[Google does] a lot of awesome things in terms of technology,” Hom says. “But it’s easy for users to forget that we’re real people, too. So I guess that’s really the purpose of Doodles. … We make mistakes with DNA sometimes also, but we’re here to keep the fun in the company and make sure the users know that we’re alive.”

The Christmas Google Doodle

Each package gets larger with a mouse-over, and a click on it returns search results pertinent to a specific country or the particular items featured in a scene. This one is from December 24, 2010.

Charlie Chaplin Google Doodle

The Google Doodle team stars in an homage to the silent film era’s greatest star’s 122nd birthday, April 15, 2011.

Google Logo Repelled by Cursor

This one’s done in HTML5 and was published Sept. 7, 2010. To get the full effect, here’s one you can interact with.

John Lennon Google Doodle

This Doodle commemorated John Lennon’s 70th birthday in October 2010.

Martha Graham

Debuting May 10, 2011, this Google Doodle marks dance choreographer Martha Graham’s birthday.

Robert Bunsen

Commemorated the birthday of the inventor of the Bunsen burner, German chemist Robert Bunsen on March 31, 2011.

Thomas Edison

The great inventor’s birthday was honored on February 11, 2011.

Independence Day

Marking Independence Day 2010.

Pac-Man’s 30th Anniversary

A real crowd pleaser was this playable Pac-Man game, which appeared on May 21. 2010. Here’s a playable version.


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Jeff Ente is the director of Who’s Blogging What, a weekly e-newsletter that tracks over 1,100 social media, web marketing and user experience blogs to keep readers informed about key developments in their field and highlight useful but hard to find posts. Mashable readers can subscribe for free here.

Algorithms aren’t going away anytime soon now that websites have a better way to directly describe their content to major search engines. Earlier this month, Google, Bing and Yahoo came together to announce support for Schema.org, a semantic markup protocol with its own vocabulary that could provide websites with valuable search exposure. Nothing will change overnight, but Schema.org is important enough to bring the three search giants together. Websites would be wise to study the basics and come up with a plan to give the engines what they want.

Schema.org attempts to close a loophole in the information transfer from website data to presentation as search results. As they note on their homepage: “Many sites are generated from structured data, which is often stored in databases. When this data is formatted into HTML, it becomes very difficult to recover the original structured data.”

Simply put, Schema.org hopes to create a uniform method of putting the structure back into the HTML where the spiders can read it. The implications go beyond just knowing if a keyword like “bass” refers to a fish, a musical instrument or a brand of shoes. The real value is that websites can provide supporting data that will be valuable to the end user, and they can do so in a way that most search engines can read and pass along.


How Schema.org Works


Schema.org was born out of conflict between competing standards. Resource Description Framework (RDF) is the semantic standard accepted by The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The Facebook Open Graph is based on a variant of RDF which was one reason that RDF seemed poised to emerge as the dominant standard.

Until this month. Schema.org went with a competing standard called microdata which is part of HTML5.

Microdata, true to its name, embeds itself deeply into the HTML. Simplicity was a key attribute used by the search engines to explain their preference for microdata, but simplicity is a relative term. Here is a basic example of how microdata works:

<div itemscope itemtype="http://data-vocabulary.org/Person">
<span itemprop="name">Abraham Lincoln</span> was born on

<span itemprop="birthDate">Feb. 12, 1809</span>.

He became known as <span itemprop="nickname">Honest Abe</span> and later served as <span itemprop="jobTitle">President of the United States</span>.

Tragically, he was assassinated and died on <span itemprop="deathDate">April 15, 1865</span>.

</div>

A machine fluent in Microdata would rely on three main attributes to understand the content:

  • Itemscope delineates the content that is being described.
  • Itemtype classifies the type of “thing” being described, in this case a person.
  • Itemprop provides details about the person, in this case birth date, nickname, job title and date of death.

Meanwhile, a person would only see:

“Abraham Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809. He became known as Honest Abe and later served as President of the United States. Tragically, he was assassinated and died on April 15, 1865.”

Fast forward to the web economy of 2011 and restaurants can use the same technology to specify item properties such as acceptsReservations, menu, openingHours, priceRange, address and telephone.

A user can compare menus from nearby inexpensive Japanese restaurants that accept reservations and are open late. Schema.org’s vocabulary already describes a large number of businesses, from dentists to tattoo parlors to auto parts stores.


Examples of Structured Data Already in Use


Structured data in search results is not new. The significance of Schema.org is that it is now going to be available on a mass scale. In other words, semantic markup in HTML pages is going prime time.

Google has so far led the way with structured data presentation in the form of “rich snippets,” which certain sites have been using to enhance their search listings with things like ratings, reviews and pricing. Google began the program in May 2009 and added support for microdata in March 2010.

A well known example of a customized structured search presentation is Google Recipe View. Do you want to make your own mango ice cream, under 100 calories, in 15 minutes? Recipe View can tell you how.


The Scary Side of Schema.org


Google, Bing and Yahoo have reassured everyone that they will continue to support the other standards besides microdata, but Schema.org still feels like an imposed solution. Some semantic specialists are asking why the engines are telling websites to adapt to specific standards when perhaps it should be the other way around.

Another concern is that since Schema.org can be abused, it will be abused. That translates into some added work and expense as content management systems move to adapt.

Schema.org might also tempt search engines to directly answer questions on the results page. This will eliminate the need to actually visit the site that helped to provide the information. Publishing the local weather or currency conversion rate on a travel site won’t drive much traffic because search engines provide those answers directly. Schema.org means that this practice will only expand.

Not everyone is overly concerned about this change. “If websites feel ‘robbed’ of traffic because basic information is provided directly in the search results, one has to ask just how valuable those websites were to begin with,” notes Aaron Bradley who has blogged about Schema.org as the SEO Skeptic.

“The websites with the most to lose are those which capitalize on long-tail search traffic with very precise but very thin content,” Bradley says. “Websites with accessible, well-presented information and — critically — mechanisms that allow conversations between marketers and consumers to take place will continue to fare well in search.”


Three Things To Do Right Now


  • Audit the data that you store about the things that you sell. Do you have the main sales attributes readily available in machine readable form? Make sure you have the size, color, price, previous feedback, awards, etc. easily readable.
  • Review the data type hierarchy currently supported by Schema.org to see where your business fits in and the types of data that you should be collecting.
  • Check your content management and web authoring systems to see if they support microdata or if they are at least planning for it. Microdata is not just a few lines of code that go into the heading of each page. It needs to be written into the HTML at a very detailed level. For some site administrators it will be a nightmare, but for others who have done proper planning and have selected the right tools, it could become an automatic path to greater search exposure.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, claudiobaba

More About: bing, business, Google, MARKETING, Schema, schema.org, Search, SEM, SEO, Yahoo

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The second Sunday in May is when the United States, Canada and a great many other countries around the world honor their mothers, celebrate motherhood and thank moms for all they do.

Since 2000 Google has marked the occasion every year with one of its infamous Google “Doodles,” transforming the classic homepage to a tribute to moms everywhere.

We’ve looked back this Mothering Sunday over a decade of mom-themed Doodles. Take a look through our gallery below and let us know which Doodle you’d like to dedicate to your mom in the comments below or via one of the share options to the top left.

2011

For this year, Google goes with a lovely yet simple design.

2010 — United States

Last year saw a great Google homepage for the United States made up of quirky glass vases…

2010 — Global

…While the rest of the world enjoyed a tulip-themed effort.

2009

The logo was pretty in pink in 2009 with a lovely bunch of blooms making up the “l.”

2008

This sweet scene sees a mother duck and two chicks decorating the famous logo.

2007

Children’s hand-drawn pictures are a cute touch on 2007’s Mother’s Day Doodle.

2006

Google said it with roses and entwined “os” back in ’06.

2005

The search giant keeps the floral theme going in 2005.

2004

A single pink rose adorns 2004’s offering.

2003

Another Mother’s Day, another vase of posies, again neatly taking the place of the “l.”

2002

A single red rose was Google’s offering to moms everywhere in 2002.

2001 & 2000

The original Mother’s Day Google Doodle appeared in the year 2000 and remained unchanged the next year. It linked to a tribute page to the then Googler’s moms.

A Tribute to Our Moms

And here is a grab of part of that page, still live today at Google.com/moms. With the sweet statement that “no search could find better moms than these,” Google illustrated the lyrics of Howard Johnson’s song M-O-T-H-E-R with portraits. Aw!

More About: design, galleries, gallery, Google, google doodles, List, Lists, logo design, logos, mothering sunday, mothers day, trending

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This post originally appeared on the American Express OPEN Forum, where Mashable regularly contributes articles about leveraging social media and technology in small business.

The term “offload” or “offloading” in information technology and computer science refers to the transfer of something from your system to an external system. In the context of websites, your system is your website (and your web servers/web host), and the external system consists of third-party web services such as Google Analytics or Shopify.

This article suggests five common site features that you can host elsewhere.


Why You Should Or Shouldn’t Offload


There are advantages and disadvantages to having parts of your website catered to by third-party web services. In order for you to decide what should and shouldn’t be on your system, let’s first talk about the pros and cons of website feature offloading.


Pros of Offloading


  • Reduced Cost: Whether it’s lower web server costs, fewer employee hours to commit to maintenance and management, the web solutions listed below will generally lead to cost reductions. Many of the services mentioned are either free or significantly lower in cost than if you were to develop, manage and maintain them yourselves.
  • Generally Better: Third-party solutions are often built by innovative companies such as Google and Yahoo, who are highly regarded as experts in the products they offer. The research, talent and manpower they’re able to commit to solving problems are more than most companies can handle.
  • Faster/More Reliable Service: Companies such as Google and Yahoo have massive IT infrastructures and server farms to ensure that their services perform well and with little to no service interruption.
  • Data Security: If a site feature requires user data management (such as credit card information and phone numbers), the web solutions mentioned below are known to have great security features. If you lack data security expertise in your company, it might be a good idea to let companies that are better equipped to handle sensitive data handle information submitted to you. This also reduces the chance of data compromises due to insecure servers, or may lead to reducing costs related to data security — security audits, SSL certificates, security consultants and developers, and so forth.

Cons of Offloading


  • Potentially Slower Web Pages: Having an external website serve parts of your website could potentially slow down some of your pages, especially for features that are embedded in your web pages (such as contact forms). This is because whenever a widget from a third-party company is included in a webpage, it has to make a connection to the other company’s server — which could be located far away from your own.
  • Lack of Control: Site features that can be offloaded are typically customizable, but there will always be limits to your ability to customize them when compared to things that you manage yourself.
  • More Things to Worry About: Most of the web services discussed here require you to sign up for an account on their website. This means more information to deal with, more systems to learn and more time needed to keep track of stuff.
  • Privacy Concern: If a site feature requires user data to be submitted, you will not be able to completely oversee what happens to that data.

Now that you know the benefits and disadvantages of offloading your website features, let’s look at those web services that are most commonly offloaded.


1. E-Commerce Management System


Custom-built e-commerce systems can be costly — not only the upfront costs of having one developed, but also those incurred once it’s up and running. There are open source software apps like Magento that are far less costly than building your own system, but still, dealing with security and data privacy can be a nightmare. The complexity and robustness in features of typical e-commerce solutions can be taxing to your web servers (and your budget).

Check out the following excellent hosted e-commerce management systems below.

  • Shopify: With a client base that includes Amnesty International and Pixar, it’s no wonder that Shopify is regarded as the go-to for hosted e-commerce systems. It will deal with credit card transactions for you, has a user-friendly interface for managing your inventory and your e-store will be highly customizable so that you’re able to match your existing company brand. Plans start from $29 a month.
  • SolidShops: If you’re a big fan of 37Signals apps (e.g. Basecamp and Highrise), you’ll appreciate the simplicity and ease-of-use of the SolidShops interface. SolidShops is a newcomer in the hosted e-commerce space, so while it’s still in beta, it’s free to use. After beta, plans start at $29 a month.
  • E-junkie: If you deal with digital goods (such as e-books), E-junkie is the premier solution for you. E-junkie lets you embed a widget into your site for near-seamless integration. Plans start at $5 a month.
  • Wazala: Wazala promises that you’ll be able to build your very own e-commerce site in 15 minutes or less. Now that’s a promise we can all appreciate! Wazala can handle credit cards, or PayPal and Google Checkout for utmost convenience to your e-shoppers. Plans start at $9.95 a month.

2. Website Analytics


It’s impo
rtant to learn what users are doing on your site so that you can ensure optimal use and growth. However, having server-side statistics-gathering tools that you host yourself can be taxing on your web host and will not give you the benefits associated with using third-party services, such as integration with other products.

Here are three web analytics tools you can offload the work to.

  • Google Analytics: Google Analytics is highly regarded in the web marketing space because it’s free, has loads of features and reporting tools, integrates with other Google products and is easy to install.
  • ClickTale: If you would like visuals on what your website users are doing, check out ClickTale, a web analytics service that tracks and records user action. You can see where people are clicking on most (and thus, most fixated on), as well as watch videos of how users are interacting with your site. ClickTale has a free plan that records 300 user interactions, and paid plans start at $99 a month.
  • Yahoo Web Analytics: It’s hard to be trailing Google, but Yahoo has launched a wonderful analytics tool that rivals Google’s Analytics. Yahoo Web Analytics boasts near real-time analytics, whereas Google Analytics can take up to 24 hours to update your data. It has advanced data visualization tools to help you create images that you can use in reports and slideshow presentations.

3. Forums


Building a community has many benefits: It connects your customers with others, allows them to help themselves if they have a question about your product and can increase customer loyalty. However, maintaining your own forums on-site can be a burden to your web servers because of the amount of data interactivity that forums typically generate. Additionally, most self-hosted, open source solutions out there, such as phpBB, are notorious for being difficult to deploy and customize (this is spoken from experience in developing for these systems). Check out hosted solutions for community forums that will reduce your stress and headaches.

  • Ninja Post: With Ninja Post, you can get your very own forums up and running in no time. It has all the features you’d expect from a forums system with some nice perks like real-time thread updating, Twitter/Facebook integration, integration with Google Adsense, and more. Plans start at about $8 a month.
  • Nabble: Nabble is a free and simple tool for creating a basic forum. It allows you to embed your forum on your website, providing you with a tightly integrated solution.
  • ZetaBoards: ZetaBoards is a free, hosted forum web service with tons of awesome features, such as full customization (if you know some CSS), support for custom domains (so that the web address of your forums will match your website’s) and more.
  • Lefora: You can create a forum with Lefora, a free, hosted forum web service. It has beautiful features such as the ability to post images and videos, Facebook and Twitter integration, and a graphical user interface for the forum post editor so that your clients won’t need to deal with code and markup to format their posts.
  • ProBoards: ProBoards is a free, hosted forum web service that allows you to create your very own forum in seconds. It’s simple, customizable and even has an iPhone app that people can use to post on your forums.
  • Zoho Discussions: Zoho Discussions is a forum, customer support and customer feedback system all rolled into one. It’s fully customizable, has content discoverability features such as RSS feeds, search and SEO options, and more. The free plan is great for intranets, with the ability to have two forums and one moderator. The next plan starts at $12 a month and gives you the ability to have public forums, community statistics and increased file attachment limits (for users who would like to post images and videos, for example).

4. Site Search


Using a third-party site search has the benefit of using the technologies these search companies have developed to your advantage. Not only that, but it saves you from having to create/develop your own search feature and can cut some costs related to increased site interactivity and bandwidth usage due to users searching your site. Here are three awesome options for offloading the burden of site search.

  • Bing Box: Bing Box is a free, simple widget by Microsoft that will give your users the ability to search your site using Microsoft’s Bing search engine.
  • Google Custom Search: Google allows you to take its years of experience and excellence in the field of search and integrate it into your site. Using Google Custom Search is a snap, and you can get it set up within minutes.
  • Yahoo Search BOSS: Yahoo Search BOSS is a solution if you need a completely customizable search engine for your site because, unlike Google Custom Search, which retains a lot of Google’s branding, Search BOSS gives you utmost design flexibility. Not only that, but it doesn’t display ads in search results like Google Custom Search. The downside? You’ll need access to a web developer to get it up and running on your site; it’s not a copy/paste solution.

5. Contact Forms and Other Web Forms


Web forms are the bread and butter of website interaction. It is the primary way you can gather data from your users (aside from publishing your e-mail address, which can be clunky and lead to tons of spam). Contact forms can be tricky to set up and develop on your own and won’t nearly come close to the reporting/analytics features and ease-of-use that third-party form building web services have to offer. Here are a few to check out.

  • Google Docs Forms: Not many people take advantage of the fact that you can create embeddable web forms (for contact forms, registrations and online surveys) using Google Docs. What’s great about this web service, besides it being free, is that it integrates directly with the Google Docs office suite (such as its spreadsheets and documents).
  • Wufoo: Wufoo is a fun web form builder that is so simple to use. It allows file uploads/attachments (in case your web form user wants to upload pictures or PDFs, for example), it permits customization and takes the time to make sure your data is safe. Its free plan allows you to have up to three forms and 100 submissions per month.
  • JotForm: JotForm is a free web form builder that has a slick interface for you to take advantage of when buildi
    ng your web forms. You can even build payment forms with it (integrated with PayPal, Google Checkout, Authorize.net, and so forth).
  • Contactify: If you just need a simple contact form, check out Contactify, a free hosted solution for dealing with your website communication needs. It will reduce the spam you get from having to provide your e-mail address in public.

More Dev & Design Resources from Mashable:


HOW TO: Design & Program a Facebook Landing Page for Your Business
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10 Premium Tumblr Themes Worth Paying For
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HOW TO: Get More Out of Your Fonts

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, kemie

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Happy Valentine’s Day to all you romantics out there! Google has set the mood on its infamously sparse homepage today with a brand new Google Doodle to mark this special day of lurve.

Google’s first Valentine’s-themed Doodle appeared way back in 2000, so we thought this would be a great opportunity to take a look back at the search giant’s efforts through the years.

Have a meander through the gallery below to see the evolution of Google’s V-Day Doodle over the past 11 years and let us know your favorite design in the comments.

2011

Pop artist Robert Indiana is the inspiration behind this year’s Doodle, with the search engine’s logo emulating Indiana’s iconic “love” sculpture.

2010

Last year Google pulled double duty with its Feb 14 logo. Marking both the Winter Olympics and V-Day, Google picked pairs skating as the sport to highlight with a heart carved in the ice to the right of the logo.

2009

Most of the world saw love birds perched on a gold band in 2009…

2009 (U.S.)

… While the U.S. got a decidedly more modern “X” and “O” to represent some hugs ‘n’ kisses.

2008

A sweet old couple holding hands appealed to your sense of romance in 2008.

2007

Google goes naughty and nice in 2007 with a chocolate dipped strawberry.

2005

Hearts and flowers in 2005 make a pretty twist on the classic logo.

2004

A year later and the Google vowels are puckering up for a smooch.

2003

Google integrated hearts as the “Os” in the logo to celebrate V-Day in 2003.

2001

Google stayed cute in 2001 with a teddy-themed doodle.

2000

Google chose a cutesy Cupid to grace its first ever Valentine’s Doodle in 2000


More Google Resources from Mashable:


HOW TO: Change the Google Logo to Your Favorite Google Doodle
10 Great Behind-the-Scenes Glimpses of Google [VIDEOS]
5 Must-See Google Easter Eggs
10 Must-See Google Street View Sightings
10 Fun Facts You Didn’t Know About Google

More About: gallery, Google, google doodle, valentine’s day, web design

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Google updated its search algorithm this week to help reduce webspam in its search results.

These changes were made in response to increased criticism of Google and its search engine results. The criticism has been partly inspired by the emergence of newer forms of webspam alongside traditional webspam (pages that consist of lots of keywords and phrases without context or meaning that “cheat” their way up to higher search ranks).

The latest webspam outbreaks commonly come from content farms and sites that syndicate content. Earlier this month, Stack Overflow‘s Jeff Atwood pointed out that in the last year, some content syndicators have routinely began outranking Stack Overflow on Google. In other words, the syndicates are outranking the originals.

In Stack Overflow‘s case, the problem was bad enough that a community member built a Google Chrome extension designed to redirect to Stack Overflow from spammier syndicates.

Matt Cutts, principle engineer at Google and head of the webspam team, responded to some of the criticism in a blog post and said Google would be “evaluating multiple changes that should help drive spam levels even lower, including one change that primarily affects sites that copy others’ content and sites with low levels of original content.” On his personal blog, Cutts confirmed that those changes have indeed gone into effect.

Cutts writes that this was a “pretty targeted launch” and that the “net effect is that searchers are more likely to see the sites that wrote the original content rather than a site that scraped or copied the original site’s content.”

More About: Google, matt cutts, Search Spam, spam, stack overflow, webspam




Fresh off raising $8 million in funding, “information experience” startup Qwiki is opening up its alpha to the public Monday.

Qwiki, as a refresher, weaves together multiple data sources in near real-time to create more than 3 million interactive video presentations on reference topics. The startup aims to create an information consumption experience as culturally relevant as Google or Facebook.

“Qwiki is not search -– it’s a new media format and a groundbreaking method of consuming information,” says Dr. Louis Monier, co-founder and CTO. “The future of Qwiki is to allow mass creation and customization of rich media via our platform, and our new public alpha features represent the first step towards that vision.”

With the public unveil comes a few new features, most notable of which is the ability for users to contribute content by suggesting web photos and YouTube videos for Qwikis in the new “Improve this Qwiki” tab. Here, users can also report mispronounced words and note whether the audio is too fast or too slow.

In the new release, there’s now a “Contents” tab that provides users with a clickable list of all the information contained within each Qwiki. The startup has also finally enabled users to embed Qwikis on third-party websites, as evidenced by the Qwiki of the Day:

The public launch marks the startup’s interest in reaching the hundreds of thousands would-be users who signed up for alpha access. The product still maintains its alpha status, however, so users should expect some kinks.

Qwiki has a long way to go before it completes its platform strategy — an API, iPad and iPhone app are all in the works — and is attracting naysayers in the meantime. The startup’s most common criticism is that it’s an over-hyped, visual talking version of Wikipedia, but the startup’s investors and founders believe they can change how information is experienced.

“We don’t have a me too product we want to trade in for free lunches at Google. We have a proposition that grabs most people by the throat and doesn’t let go,” Monier said in a private e-mail to co-founder Doug Imbruce late last week. “We have a new brush and new colors to paint anything we want. We have complex technology … that delivers magic and will be hard to imitate. We are the first to explore a whole new world.”

Now that Qwiki is a public product, you can be judge of that.

More About: qwiki, Search, startups




Collecta, a real-time search engine that launched in June 2009, has quietly shuttered its main product; the team is returning “back into the woodshed,” in the words of CEO Gerry Campbell, to work on new ideas and new directions.

Currently, Collecta.com is just a placeholder and mailing-list signup form field. The site shows a constantly refreshing mosaic of images gathered in real time from TwitPic and Flickr — an homage to the company’s roots.

With the majority of a carefully spent $4.7 million Series B still sitting in the bank, the startup has plenty of runway to work with; a large part of the company’s talent is staying onboard, as well. (One of the co-founders, Jack Moffitt, will be engaged in other pursuits, which gives us a grand total of two entities to watch closely following this announcement.)

Campbell said running a real-time search engine, while it is not to become the company’s end goal, was an educational experience for the team. In a conversation today, he noted that the company learned three main lessons from its two-and-a-half-year stint as a real-time search engine.

“First, there is a huge need for real-time information,” he said. “Second, a destination site is not the correct vehicle for reaching people. Third, new behaviors, specifically with Facebook and mobile, are growing.

“Beyond that, we’re in a new market since 2009.” Campbell’s right about that much; in 2009, real-time technology was almost a means and an end in itself. Today, real-time technology is only one component for an ever-growing range of applications.

Whatever comes next, though, will likely have strong ties to Collecta’s excellent real-time technology. “This company’s DNA is definitely real-time,” Campbell concluded.

While we’re surprised at this pivot, we’re glad it comes at a financially convenient time for this startup, and we can’t wait to find out what’s going on in that metaphorical woodshed of theirs.

It’s interesting to note that Collecta’s major rival in the real-time search space, OneRiot, also completely changed product directions this year, dumping its search engine and moving into the online ad game.

More About: collecta, pivot, real-time, Search, startup

406-google-instant

For years, Google’s search engine remained the safe and familiar option for web users. You typed a term, hit return, and were presented with pages providing 100 billion blue links. It’s all changed during the past 12 months. We’ve had a redesign, a new auto-complete bar, background images, the fade-in effect, an updated image view and now “Instant Search.” What’s going on? Is it competition from Bing? Perhaps it’s all those Google Wave developers with too much time on their hands?

Google has decided that the standard search is too slow and there’s no need for to hit return after typing a term. Google Instant uses Ajaxy goodness to present search results as you type. According to the information page, it saves 2-5 seconds per query. If everyone uses it, it’ll save 3.5 billion seconds a day — or 11 hours every second.

I suggest you try it. It’s available to users in the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Russia, but you can use it from elsewhere if you’re signed in to your Google account (I found I had to be logged in regardless). It works on Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and IE8 but appears to be disabled in Opera. They won’t be happy in Oslo. I’m sure Google will fix it, but there’s little excuse.

From a technical perspective, Google Instant is impressive. Multiple searches are performed as you type and, although the Ajax response is a highly-compressed string, traffic volumes will have increased significantly. Even the adverts change. Google’s data centers must be smoking, but the response remains fast throughout.

You can try alternative terms and quickly determine whether the results are relevant. However, it’s tempting to experiment so I’m not convinced it’ll result in an overall time saving.

Instant Search is integrated with the standard Google interface and it doesn’t always gel. For example, the moment you type a letter on the home page, the screen clears and the search box moves to the top — it’s a little disorientating. The auto-complete box options and the instant search don’t feel quite right together and the results can differ. I also suspect some people will be distracted by the continually changing results and adverts. Finally, Instant Search isn’t available in other areas, such as news.

I like it, but Google Instant requires further usability testing. That said, perhaps we’ll love it after a few weeks. It can be switched off in the settings if you detest it.

But is Instant Search an improvement? Do you like it? Will you continue to use it? Please cast your vote on the SitePoint poll and leave your comments below.