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More amateurs

September 19, 2014

I suppose I could be accused of being obsessed with amateurishness, but it is something that really irritates me. I constantly see people who claim expertise in some area charging large amounts of money to give advice on that matter when a simple check can show that they don't even apply their own rules to themselves, or even if they know what those rules are.

Any company with an email account will receive a steady stream of spam offering to improve the performance and Google ranking of their website. I find these particularly tedious because if someone actually goes and looks at my work website they will see that I actually do search engine optimisation for a living. In fact, an organisation that had been found by the Federal Court of Australia to be operating an illegal pyramid scheme took umbrage at my comments on their activities and one of the complaints they actually made to a court was that when anybody did a Google search for their company name the article I had written criticising them came up above their corporate website in the search results. If they hadn't been crooks I might have offered to help them get a better ranking.

I had a wonderful example this week of a company offering website optimisation. This was not a spam email but was an advertisement on the website of a business promotion organisation because the website optimising people are a member of that group. I also know a bit about optimisation of websites, which is a separate issue to optimising how those websites are found by search engines and deals with how quickly pages can load and how quickly you can change from one page to another.

The website of this optimisation company seems to be a five or six page brochure with static content, but it has been built using WordPress blogging software. I have commented before that WordPress is very good software indeed and is bringing you the very blog you're reading right now. What it isn't however is the best choice for something which doesn't need constant updating or doesn't intend to provide interaction with visitors by allowing comments. For a brochure site, its use indicates that the people doing the website development are essentially clueless and have no idea how to use the proper tools for the job. It is also an indication of laziness, as well as a lack of knowledge of the possibilities of how to go about doing the job properly.

One of the ways to optimise loading performance for a web page is to reduce the number of additional files which have to be loaded from the server. A look at the HTML source for the front page of this company's website shows that it loads at least nine stylesheet files. Every one of those files requires the visitor's browser to interact with the server and every interaction adds more time to the process of loading the page. I use a stylesheet file named "common.css" which is exactly the same for every website I manage, and contains the basic set of style commands that I use everywhere. Each site then has its own separate stylesheet file with customisation for that particular site. This customisation includes such things as colours, fonts, and some aspects of layout. By doing this I limit the number of times that the browser has to request information from the server. I should point out here that WordPress allows this exact same facility, so someone loading nine stylesheet files not only does not understand the concept of cascading style sheets, but doesn't even know how WordPress works. I'll try not to say anything about the five files which load fonts from the server plus a few loading more fonts from Google. Not content with just having nine stylesheet files, there are also styles embedded within the page code applying to particular objects.

Next we'll move onto JavaScript files. This is a programming language which allows your browser to execute small programs. Again I have a common JavaScript file for each website which contains all the routines which are used throughout the site. (There may be occasional pages which require additional JavaScript routines, such as cost calculations based on quantities ordered, but these are only loaded by that single page when required). The common JavaScript file is loaded once per visit to the website. The optimiser's website loads at least eight JavaScript files, each one adding to the load on the server and the time necessary for the page to appear in the browser. There are also JavaScript routines included in the main body of the page, adding again to the time it takes to load.

As with the number of files which have to be loaded to display a webpage, the size of these files also matters. Something you can't do with WordPress, and another reason for not using it except when it is the right tool for the job, is to remove what is called "white space" in the HTML code. What this means is that all unnecessary spaces, line break characters, and any other characters which are not needed to describe the page are removed before the page is loaded up to the server. If you want to see an example of this in action ask your browser to show you the code source for this page. Not only is this a much smaller file to load but it provides an additional level of security because humans can't read it easily.

Because of some tricks they have done with JavaScript (most of which weigh down the browser and cause it to run more slowly when displaying things) I didn't bother downloading and checking compression on all the images used on the site, but the two or three I looked at appeared to be at the best possible size for these particular JPEG images. This could be because they ran them through an optimisation program to reduce the size to a minimum, but the lack of professionalism and expertise shown throughout the rest of the site suggests that maybe they were just lucky that when the images were saved by Photoshop or whatever they are using to for the image manipulation the program saved at the best size anyway.

I'm not really sure if this company even understands what the expression "web optimisation" means. Perhaps they think it really does just mean the same as "search engine optimisation", but even if that is the case there is evidence that they have no idea what they are talking about there either. Looking at the source code for each of the pages shows that they have acquired what is supposed to be search engine optimisation code from someone else. This particular piece of code inserts what's known as a "canonical" instruction. The concept of the canonical setting is that it tells search engines not to index this page but to go to the page which has been pointed to in the canonical directive. The idea behind this is you might have two pages on a website which have similar content but you only want Google or Bing to index one of them, the most important one. On every page of this site is a canonical command telling the search engine that they shouldn't index the page they're looking at but go instead to a page with exactly the same address. When they read the page again they see the same command. I assume that the smart people writing the software at Google and Bing have allowed for the possibility of an infinite loop like this and probably simply drop indexing the page altogether.

For all their skill at search engine optimisation, the front page of this optimisation site has a Google page ranking of 1/10. That means that Google doesn't really think it's very important at all. I had a look at the site that they feature as probably the most successful client they have and it at least has a page rank of 4/10. A look at the page source however showed an even greater dog's breakfast than the optimiser's own site – I gave up counting at 18 JavaScript files, and something that they are probably very proud of and would have pointed out to the client (and included on the invoice) is something which Google declared approximately two years ago would be ignored when indexing a page.

I'm not sure if presenting yourself as an expert when you know nothing to people who know even less than you is just an example of arrogance or a failure in ethics. I suspect it's a combination of both, but it is is obviously a profitable way to behave. There are things I won't do for my clients because they are outside my area of expertise, and when that happens I refer them to someone who might know what they're doing. I could probably make a lot more money if I simply bluffed my way through, particularly if the results of my ignorance were not obvious to the client because they didn't know any better. There is a well-known psychological phenomenon about people assuming greater expertise than they really have called the Dunning-Kruger effect, but I don't think it should be the basis for a business model.

You can see some other things I've written about amateurishness in the IT industry at "Beware the SMEG. That's a winning strategy." and "Save me from amateurs".

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