Learn with Google for Publishers

Learn with Google for Publishers
Google New York offices

Google New York offices

I spent the day at the Google offices in New York attending their first Learn with Google for Publishers event. It was awesome! This series of events replaces the AdSense in Your City program and has been expanded to include sessions on DFP Small Business, Google Analytics, and the Go Mo initiative. Most (all?) of the staff running the sessions were imported from Mountain View and I was really impressed with them. If someone had a question, then they either had the answer or directed you to someone who had the answer (or in a few cases, tactfully kept the discussion going when someone asked something that didn’t make any sense).

There were perhaps a hundred or so publishers at the event, ranging from hobbyists to big publishers with over a hundred million impressions per month. Based on a “raise your hand if…” survey, only half of those in attendance worked for a company that had at least one employee, and of those with employees, only a couple had an employee dedicated to ad sales and operations. I thought this was pretty surprising. Glad to know I’m not the only random person sitting at home running a business out of a spare bedroom.

I left with a lot of new information and huge “to do” list for my websites, and I don’t think it’d be reasonable to share everything I learned, but I would like to share a few of the things I found more interesting.

First, Google knows that there isn’t a good way to make a site with progressive design and AdSense. They know there isn’t a supported way of getting fresh ads on your site when you refresh the content using ajax. They know the workarounds (like limiting yourself to mobile friendly ad sizes) are less than desirable. Product Management Director Jonathan Bellack says that a big focus for 2013 is to work towards solutions for these problems, and that they are problems that even huge publishers are facing. It was great to hear this. I assumed Google was on the ball with this, but it is good to hear it from someone in a position to actually know what is going on.

Second, there was a bit of an atmosphere of fear among the publishers at this event. Many publishers were openly scared of losing their income either due to Google Search algorithm changes or AdSense account suspensions. These topics were brought up again and again throughout the day, and finally, at the end of the event when Bellack was speaking, it came up again several more times. Based on another “raise your hand if…” survey, nearly everyone in the room said they’d be willing to pay for live help with account suspension and policy violation issues (via telephone or whatever) even if Google still decides to permanently suspend their account. This seemed to be pretty surprising to the Googlers. It seems to me that for medium to large publishers, it is almost a no brainer. I’d rather spend a couple hundred to have my issue addressed quickly rather than lose hundreds per day due to having my account suspended.

Bellack was also surprised at the number of publishers in the room that had previous account suspensions (maybe 20 people) or policy violation warnings (maybe 45 people) in the past. I was also surprised by this. Presumably the group Google assembled were the publishers that care the most about their businesses, and are doing their best to learn about Google’s products and to follow the rules. I don’t want to dwell on this topic more than I already have, but I’m grateful that, again, someone in charge has been made aware of the issue and will likely take steps to make things better in the future.

Google poster in the Gwb Tech Talk room

Google poster in the Gwb Tech Talk room

On a positive note, Bellack says that a publisher’s reputation over the course of their relationship with Google will have an impact on suspension decisions moving forward. For example, if a publisher plays by the rules for 10 years, and then accidentally breaks a rule, then the 10 years of good behavior is going to show Google that it was likely an accident. The example given by Bellack was a long-term publisher that does everything right but then hires a firm to drive traffic, and the firm does it in a spammy way. The publisher didn’t do anything bad intentionally, which is demonstrated by the long-term history of white hat SEO. Google is working on mitigating the damage that can be done by the disreputable firm. This isn’t really news, as Bellack has publicly stated this recently, but it is always good to hear that it wasn’t just a press release item but something they are actually going to follow through with.

Changing topics entirely, it was interesting to see more go mobile information from Google. They say that they are working on replacing the desktop/mobile distinction within DFP to instead focus on device capabilities, such as does the device have a camera? touch sensitive? resolution? GPS? This is incredibly interesting to me. I have some ideas for engaging landing pages that require specific device capabilities, and I suspect the big advertisers will come up with even better ideas to make use of this level of targeting.

According to Bellack, there are more available mobile ad impressions than there are ads to fill them, so they are also working on bringing in more mobile advertisers to the Ad Exchange. This was surprising to me. I’m curious where these mobile ad impressions are coming from. The general consensus I heard throughout the day from the publishers in attendance is that they aren’t terribly interested in putting resources into mobile or responsive designs when there isn’t a good way to effectively monetize them, which brings us back, again, to Google’s commitment to work on solutions to these problems this year.

There were a few session on DFP Small Business. I only attended one but was able to get a pile of information on how to use it better. This post has already grown longer than I’d like, but perhaps if someone is actually interested (or for my own future reference) I’ll write up a post of what I learned. The Googler that ran this session seemed to know everything about DFP and kept me busy taking notes.

I also attended a Google Analytics session. It was well presented and well organized, but I didn’t really learn anything new. It covered basic topics like search engine keyword reports, the Visitors Flow report, and goal conversions. These are good things to use, but I would hope most people are already aware of them, even if they don’t take the opportunity to use them.

Thank you Google for putting on this event! The entire day was thoroughly enjoyable, especially the UX focus group and the unexpected QA with Jonathan Bellack. I’m going to be stuck at my desk for a week implementing all the recommended changes and best practices that I gleaned from the various sessions.

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9 books that changed the way I see the world

9 books that changed the way I see the world

I love reading. Actually, that isn’t really true. I hate reading. Takes forever, can’t watch TV or code at the same time, etc. What I really love are stories. More than that, I love the ability that some authors and books have of getting me to see the world in a different way. I’d like to share with you a few of the books that I’ve found especially thought provoking. I tried to keep it a mix of classic and modern, familiar and obscure.

In no particular order:

Wool by Hugh Howey – I started this series of five short books without really knowing what it was about. It was recommended to me by a friend that said I’d like it, but I’d like it even more if I read it without knowing the premise. He was right. This book is awesome, but if I told you what it was about then I’d be depriving you of the enjoyment of finding it out on your own.

The Plagiarist by Hugh Howey – Yup, another book by Hugh Howey. This one is a look into the future, when people have the ability to simulate entire worlds so accurately that the world’s inhabits don’t now that they are virtual. The main character has a rather interesting job: he copies the literary masterpieces from these virtual worlds so they can be sold in the real world.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card – The story of a young child that is chosen by the world’s military to attend a special school designed to train soldiers to repel a future alien invasion. Being released as a major motion picture on November 1, 2013, but I guarantee you’ll be a happier person if you read this book before you see the movie.

Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card – Another book by Orson Scott Card. The future didn’t turn out quite as great as everyone had hoped. Using newly developed technology, a group of scientists plans to go back in time to put things into balance. It sounds like a scifi, but even my wife (a scifi hater) liked it.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – An old classic that most people haven’t taken the time to read. If all you know of Alice in Wonderland is the Disney movie then you are missing out. Take the time to read it.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand – Whether you like this book or hate it depends largely on your political and philosophical views. I think the author’s views are a bit extreme, but nevertheless I think they accurately depict many of the problems faced by our society today.

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow – Carnegie Mellon used to have a lecture series where professors would have the chance to impart their most important wisdom in a sort of “last lecture” format, as if it was the last chance they had to speak to the world. Randy Pausch, diagnosed with cancer, was invited to participate in this lecture series. This book is an extended version of his lecture and contains many gems of wisdom.

Added Upon by Nephi Anderson – An fairly old book that few people are familiar with. I’ve never seen a good e-book or reprint version, so I’d recommend spending the few dollars to get an old out-of-print copy. It is geared towards LDS members but I think it is a great read for any Christian. The story outlines the lives and interactions of several individuals, from before birth all the way to the afterlife.

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott – This book may be a difficult read for some, but it is under a hundred pages so stick it out and finish it. Seriously. It isn’t that long, and all the good stuff is in the last half of the book. The book describes a two-dimensional world filled with two-dimensional beings. These sentient creatures are unaware of anything but their own existence, until one day a sphere introduces itself to a square. The square’s entire worldview is changed. This is one of the books that I feel can only be disliked if you aren’t willing to apply its message to your own life and understanding of things.

Well that is my list. Any suggestions on what I missed?

Photo courtesy of brewbooks under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

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SYN flood mitigation

My Sunday morning was ruined by a notification email from a monitoring service letting me know that my server was down. Eek! I took the normal first steps: try to SSH to the box and remote reboot. Still offline.

I started a chat with my hosting company’s tech support. They said that it looked like a SYN flood was in progress, and that I’d need to handle it on my own. They pointed to a few resources that gave suggestions on what to do, and helped me figure out how to SSH into my box on the hosting company’s private network (because the SYN flood was only affecting public network access). Overall, excellent support from SoftLayer.

Most websites that talked about SYN floods recommended turning on SYN cookies and adding a few iptables rules. With further research (and experience) I discovered that neither of these options really work well. I wasn’t even entirely convinced that I was being flooded. I think all the traffic was legitimate (I run a lot of popular sites).

So what to do? I read a few sites and came up with a solution.

First you need to keep in mind that a lot of default networking settings were developed way back in the day when computers weren’t nearly as powerful as they are now. My server is more than capable of handling the traffic but the default settings were keeping connections from getting through. To fix this, I needed to tell my server that it could handle additional connections. In a shell I issued these commands:

echo 16384 > /proc/sys/net/ipv4/tcp_max_syn_backlog
echo 16384 > /proc/sys/net/core/somaxconn

Next I updated a config file, /etc/sysctl.conf, so these settings will still be there next time I reboot:

net.ipv4.tcp_max_syn_backlog = 16384
net.core.somaxconn = 16384

Last, I had to tell Apache to handle more connections as well by editing the httpd.conf file:

ListenBacklog 16384

I restarted Apache and BAM! My sites were accessible again! Yay! My load average is still around 0.05 to 0.10 most of the time. Lots of free memory. Fast page loads. Everything works great. All it took was giving my server a little self confidence by letting it know it was capable of handling the traffic it was getting.

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A few of my favorite web tools

I find myself using the same tools each time I go to work on a site, so I thought I’d write a quick post for my own future benefit and perhaps to help other web developer friends.

Google AdWords Keyword Tool – Possibly the easiest way to know if a website will be financially successful is to use the AdWords Keyword Tool to find out if anyone is searching for the website’s topic. No searches, no money. You can also tell what kind of competition advertisers face for specific topics, which can also be a great indicator as to whether your topic can be profitable.

Domize – Once I know a topic has money potential, I head over to Domize to find a domain. This is easily the fastest tool to figure out if domains are available for registration or not.

Gridless – An easy to use, full featured HTML5/CSS3 boilerplate. Works great for pretty much any sort of site (mobile, desktop, fixed, fluid, responsive..), and is easy to plug into any framework.

Browser Shots – Free and easy tool to get screenshots of your site on various browsers on various operating systems. Saves you from having to mess with a bunch of virtual machines (or physical machines) to test your site. I always always always use this when paying someone to do design work for me. I’ve never had a designer deliver the “finished” product that didn’t have major problems I found using Browser Shots.

PunyPNG – The best image optimization tool I’ve ever found. Quick and easy, and consistently gives me the smallest file sizes. Once the site is finished, I run the images through PunyPNG to reduce the site’s payload.

Copyscape – One of the few paid tools I use on occasion. It allows you to determine if a chunk of text has been copied or is original. This is vital if you are paying for original content (like articles) so that you aren’t inadvertently purchasing copyrighted material.

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Your urine won’t save you

Your urine won’t save you

UrineA survivalist book recently popped up on a Cool Tools site that I follow. This book, written by a celebrity expert, advocates drinking your own urine in an emergency situation. The author says it is completely safe and sterile as long as you drink it right after urinating, and that you can drink the first two passes of urine. So the question becomes, is he right? Will drinking your urine save you?

The answer is simple: no, it won’t. In fact, in an emergency situation where you don’t have access to fresh water, drinking your urine will almost certainly decrease your odds of survival. This is a debated topic, so I’ll present my case and let you decide.

First of all, I’d like to concede the point that urine in and of itself isn’t particularly dangerous. Thousands of people drink their urine on a regular basis without any issues. These individuals are not living on their urine though. They are drinking it as a supplement to their regular food and water intake. In a survival situation where you don’t have fresh water and potentially have a limited food supply, your body won’t be able to get the water it needs to wash the harmful compounds out of your body that you are reintroducing to it by drinking your urine. Comparing the outcomes of the two situations is an apples to oranges comparison; the two situations are not equal. Just because it is safe to drink at home doesn’t mean it is safe to drink if you are trapped in a collapsed building.

But what about all those stories of people surviving by drinking their urine? Doesn’t that prove that it works? Well, no. All that proves is that those people survived despite drinking their urine. This sort of anecdotal evidence is far from scientific and doesn’t prove that drinking urine actually helped. Think of it this way: there is a famous story of a grandma lifting a car off of her son after it fell off a jack, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to keep an old lady handy when I’m changing my oil.

But if drinking urine in an emergency was dangerous, wouldn’t there be documented cases of people dying from it? I don’t think so. If an emergency crew finds a dead person in a collapsed building, how are they going to know that the person drank urine? It is common to skip an autopsy when the cause of death is traumatic and/or obvious. Even if an autopsy is performed or there is a note left or something to indicate that the person drank urine, it is unlikely that the news is going to print something potentially viewed as derogatory (drinking ones own urine) about an innocent victim of a tragedy.

But don’t the experts say you should drink it if you don’t have water?! If you count Mykel Hawke as an expert, then yup, some experts do say you should. If you count the United States Army, Tom Brown, Jr., and Doug Ritter as experts, then there are experts that say you shouldn’t, too. Personally I find it disturbing that Hawke, a retired Army Special Forces officer, is advocating something that the Army says you shouldn’t do.

So maybe now I’ve at least opened your mind to the possibility that drinking urine in an emergency is bad. What makes it so bad? Here are a few things:

  1. Contrary to popular belief, urine is not sterile once it leaves the body. It picks up bacteria once it hits the urethra. If you drink the urine immediately, the bacteria is generally safe to drink. If you let the urine sit for a while so the bacteria can grow, or you have a urinary tract infection, then drinking the urine is dangerous. Keep in mind that you may not know you have an infection. It can take a while for the symptoms to become noticeable.
  2. In an average well hydrated adult, you can expect your urine to contain about 1.17 g/L of sodium. A person produces about 1-2 liters of urine a day. The recommended daily intake of sodium is 2.4 g per day, which means you are instantly getting about 50% of your daily sodium just from drinking your urine, in addition to whatever sodium you are getting from any food you may have. Your body is going to have to use even more water to wash that sodium out of your body (again), which will cause you to become dehydrated even faster than if you didn’t drink your urine in the first place.
  3. Drinking urine without adequate amounts of water can cause kidney failure. Your body just worked hard to flush a bunch of junk out through your urine. You just took all that junk and swallowed it. Your body now has to work, again, to flush the junk out. Your kidneys aren’t going to like you for this.
  4. If you have a crushing injury (like if you are trapped in a building and something fell on you), then your muscles are going to start leaking potassium and phosphorous. Your body is already going to struggle to deal with this. Dumping a bunch of potassium back into your body via your urine is going to make it even harder for your body to cope.
  5. Similarly, if your only food source is high in potassium (like bananas) then drinking urine is going to be dangerous. Your body will struggle to handle all that potassium.
  6. If you are on medications or vitamins, then some of those medications or vitamins may be reintroduced into your body by drinking urine. The effects of this will vary based on what you’ve taken.

Well that is the end of my rant. Please don’t drink your pee.

Photo courtesy of quinn.anya.

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