Tag Archives: websites

GDPR is bigger than Y2K

Fishing at seaThe 25th May is approaching! That’s the date the EU’s new legislation aimed at protecting the private data of all EU citizens using the internet comes into force.

“GDPR stands for General Data Protection Regulation. It is a legislation that aims to protect the privacy of all EU citizens. GDPR forces organisations to make major changes in the way they handle their customers personal data, affecting their business processes as well as software. It’s a whole system of principles, rights and obligations which you will need to be familiar with. GDPR will apply from 25 May 2018.” That’s a quote from an excellent article explaining the legislation, and the obligations of website administrators, in simple language. The actual legislation, in typical EU fashion, is lengthy. Here it is, for your edification. Pardon me if I don’t wait for you to catch up.

This comes after many breaches of people’s privacy, not so much hacking incidents, but more where data such as email addresses have been collected and sold or given to third parties to be used for such things as spam. The recent furore over Facebook and  Cambridge Analytica, where Facebook sent users’ data on to another company without their knowledge, is a case in point. I’m sure all computer users would agree that collecting information about them and passing it on without prior consent is wrong. In very simple terms the GDPR requirements mean that if a person (eg me) uses a website, and that website collects any data about me, I need to be told what data, and why, and I have to consent.

Fine. But it turns out ‘very simple’ isn’t very simple.

The thing is, we willingly share information about ourselves if there’s something in it for us. Our phones tell use what the weather’s like where we are, or where to find a restaurant – if location tracking is on. Information such as your age and sex can be used to target advertising so you’re shown dating sites for the right age group. Amazon famously uses your (collected and stored) browsing and purchase history to suggest other items which might be of interest. But that’s on Amazon’s own website. If the company on-sold the data, it’s another story. Then there are online retail sites (including Amazon), which require names, phone numbers and physical addresses. And it could be argued that if you don’t realise Amazon and Facebook and Google and Microsoft are all collecting data about you, you’d better get out from under that rock.

Mind you, if I’m buying something like an ebook I resent having to provide a physical address. It’s not needed to carry out the transaction, and I’ve been known to walk away rather than divulge.

But that’s the obvious stuff. There are other items of data that are collected to make the wheels of the internet turn smoothly, or for quite inocuous, statistical reasons. Many sites collect data such as IP addresses for Google analytics so the administrators can see which countries their visitors come from (it’s just a count – nothing more).

If I want to leave a comment on a website, then typically I’m asked for my email address and maybe my own website. That information is stored on the site’s server, and is visible to the administrators. If I elect to follow a site, my email address is collected. If I join a mailing list, ditto – and perhaps also my name. Etc.

The GDPR regulations state that visitors should opt in to collection of their data. They should be able to opt out at any time, and be able to delete any information that may have been collected at a given site.

It all sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

And that brings me back to Y2K.

In the mid-1990’s the IT world had an ‘oh shit’ moment. Back when computers were first developed hardware was very, very expensive, so every effort was made to use the bare minimum of resources such as data storage. For that reason dates were stored as 6 digits – DDMMYY everywhere but the US, where it was MMDDYY. Then somebody realised that when we reached the year 2000, all our date maths would be out the window. Let’s say you started a 10-year loan on 1/5/95. It would be due to terminate on 30/4/05. But if you subtract 95 from 05, you don’t get 10. This meant retrofitting a gazillion systems using 6-digit dates to 8-digit dates (DDMMYYYY). It was huge. It required a multitude of analysts (to find where the dates were used) and programmers (to fix the code). But it was done. The century rolled over with barely a hiccup – but at a cost of billions of dollars. ($100 bilion in the US alone)

But that Herculean effort pales into insignificance in comparison with GDPR.

These requirements don’t just affect websites in the EU, they affect all websites which could be used by EU citizens. That includes this site, gretavanderrol.com, my crummy little website where I list my books and prattle on about my last holiday (and a few rants). Please do not imagine for a moment that compliance is easy. WordPress, the software upon which my site is based, is a huge enterprise. Half the world’s websites (especially the small ones) are hosted by WordPress. At some stage the company will catch up with some of the requirements, and include them in its basic framework, but not before 25 May 2018, when the law becomes enforceable. Added to that, there are literally thousands of WordPress plugins, (apps if you will) specially written to fit into the WordPress framework. Some of them use cookies, or collect information about visitors, and if I use the plugins, I’m responsible.

Even for a simple little site like mine I’m expected to list any cookies that the software might place on a visitor’s machine. Here’s what WordPress says about cookies for people leaving a comment [1].

“When visitors comment on your blog, they get cookies stored on their computer. This is purely a convenience, so that the visitor won’t need to re-type all their information again when they want to leave another comment. Three cookies are set for commenters:

  • comment_author_{HASH}
  • comment_author_email_{HASH}
  • comment_author_url_{HASH}

The commenter cookies are set to expire a little under one year from the time they’re set.”

I have to make sure you can see a list of every cookie my site stores and what it’s for. You have to give consent before you can comment on my blog, and you must be able to remove your consent, and delete any information I might have stored about you, which means deleting your comments, and also deleting any record of your visit, such as your IP address.

Needless to say, enterprising software developers are writing plugins to help website owners cope with the requirements – some are free, some are not. I tried one plugin which checked for use of cookies. It was free for a site with less than 100 pages. I don’t have a lot of pages – but I use the site for my blog, and every post was counted as a page. That put me into premium class, and would have cost me $10 per month, which is frankly more than I pay for hosting the site. One plugin required me to make a change to the header in the HTML. I assure you most site owners wouldn’t know what that meant, let alone how to do it. And all the way through, there are disclaimers that this plugin will not make your site compliant. Perhaps you should talk to a lawyer, and hire a developer.

And if you opt to ignore the legislation? The penalties are (to say the least) substantial. Here’s a quote from GDPR Associates. “There will be two levels of fines based on the GDPR. The first is up to €10 million or 2% of the company’s global annual turnover of the previous financial year, whichever is higher. The second is up to €20 million or 4% of the company’s global annual turnover of the previous financial year, whichever is higher.”

I’m glad I never bothered with a mailing list. Anyone with a mailing list must go back to all subscribers and have them either subscribe again, or be assumed to have unsubscribed.

A ‘contact me’ form must explain what you’ll be doing with the contactee’s email address. I’ve deleted my ‘contact me’ page. But I have copied a boiler-plate privacy policy. I cannot imagine how the EU thinks it’s going to police this policy, especially on non-EU websites like mine. But I do get visitors residing in the EU, and I suppose all it needs is for one person to register a complaint. Me, I’m collecting up my toys and retreating to the comfort of WordPress.com. Not only is it cheaper, it relieves me of some of the responsibility of complying.

The thing is, while I can see why it’s being done, I don’t think much thought has been given to the ramifications. It’s like a fishing boat trawling for sharks. Trouble is, it swallows up everything – dolphins, turtles, tuna, mackerel, whiting, sardines, clown fish – the lot. Guess which species I am?

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The magic of book marketing

Picture of Amazon adIn the last couple of days, my book sales have escalated, propelling Morgan’s Return into the top 20 for space opera (which is the genre I write). Its predecessor, Morgan’s Choice, is also back in the top one hundred. Please understand, I won’t be giving JK Rowling a run for her money anytime soon. We’re not talking huge numbers, but it’s nice to have an audience. Very nice.

A few people have asked how I managed to do that.

The answer is simple: I haven’t a clue. As I said in the title, maybe it’s magic. Maybe a sprinkle of fairy dust landed on my shoulder, and caused Amazon to send out the ad at top left. If we exclude the possibility of fairy dust, I don’t know what I did to have Amazon send that out – but it did and my languishing sales took off. Maybe – and I’m guessing – it has something to do with the fact that Morgan’s Choice was in the top one hundred for several months a few months ago. Maybe Amazon thought it was worth telling people I’d written a sequel. But I didn’t pay for the ad. It’s sort of an adjunct to the emails we all regularly get, listing a selection of books in a genre you’ve bought. I usually get a list of my own books, with a couple of others, like that one there.Picture of Amazon suggestions

Let me tell you a few things that didn’t cause that spike in sales.

I’ve written a ‘good book’.

I don’t know what that means. ‘Good’ is subjective at the best of times and has different meanings. Does it mean it’s a great story? What you think is good, someone else will think is a crock. If ‘good’ means the book has been well-produced in that it’s been edited, has very few typos and is correctly formatted, well, yes my books are all those things. But again, so what? Readers don’t much care about those things. Writers do.

I advertised.

I have bought advertising but what I’ve bought for this book has not yet appeared. I’ve bought ads on The Romance Reviews and the-Cheap – even on the mighty Zon, where I paid $100 to be in the Amazon Book Club, which I feel was a waste of money. Morgan’s Choice was in a list of twenty or so books, not sorted by genre or anything else, a grab-bag listing for the day. I have seen no spike in sales that I could attribute to any sort of advertising. Except that headline one up there.

I participated in blog tours.

Not for this book, I didn’t. I did for Starheart, where I managed my own tour, and I bought a tour for Black Tiger because it was a different genre to my usual space opera. Again, in my experience, blog tours don’t really work.

I have a huge web presence.

Not really. I have an author page on Amazon, Omnilit and Smashwords. I’m on Facebook, but I recently whittled down my friends list to people I actually interact with. I have an author page with 400 ‘likes’. I have a website where I talk about writing and science, a separate site for historical topics and a third where I share my photos. (I’m a keen photographer.) I don’t do a newsletter. My name is on sites across the web where I’ve signed up but don’t actually participate. Oh, and I’m no longer on Google+ or on Goodreads. After all, how much time can a person spend updating sites? I also don’t touch the Kindle Boards.

I bought reviews.

At the time of writing, Morgan’s Return has no reviews on Amazon or anywhere else. I don’t ask for reviews, and I certainly don’t buy them. I have placed the book at two review sites on the basis of a free book for an honest review. Morgan’s Choice has a full house – one star to (a lot more) five stars. That’s okay.

I bash the book on Twitter.

Yes, I do some sales tweets. I’d be stupid not to – but that’s certainly not all I do on Twitter. I participate on Triberr and I’ve found a lot of great blog sites that way. The best way to turn people off is to shove your product down their throats. I don’t.

It’s on Kindle Select.

Morgan’s Return isn’t on the program.

It’s a cheap read.

Yes, it is. $4.99 is cheaper than the big league. But it’s not $0.99. There are two reasons for that. One, I work hard at what I do. I think I’m entitled to a fair compensation. And two, the readers of the planet aren’t stupid. If you give your book away, or undervalue a 100k+ word book, why should they give it any respect? To be sure, there are well-produced, well-edited, free or ultra cheap books out there – but there’s an awful lot of garbage, too. I don’t want my work to be automatically lumped into the garbage category.

What works?

I’ve stewed on that subject for a while. I don’t know why Morgan’s Choice took off, either, or why it suddenly declined. But there is no doubt that if one book takes off, the others are towed along in its wake. So…

Write more books. That’s it, in a nutshell. If you have a backlist, readers can discover one book, then happily go and read your other work. I do that all the time. If I find a writer I enjoy, I’ll dig out everything they’ve written. It’s a network effect, a web. The more books you have available, the more entry points you have, the more chances you have to establish readers as fans. This latest surge is an illustration. At the time of writing, Morgan’s Return was at 19 in space opera and Morgan’s Choice was at 27. What this means, folks, is that NEW PEOPLE ARE BUYING Morgan’s Choice.

However, I will add one thing; it’s easier if you write one genre. My space opera sells. My historical fiction novel, To Die a Dry Death, won a bronze medal in the 2011 e-lit awards and has a swag of excellent reviews from a wide range of sources. But it hardly sells. Some people have given it a try after reading my SF, and have been pleasantly surprised, but that’s rare. The same thing has happened with Black Tiger, which is just as fast-paced and action-packed as my SF – but it’s a paranormal romance. (Or at least, as close to a romance as you’ll ever see from me.) The reviewers on the blog tour all said the book was different from the usual paranormal, and they were surprised they enjoyed the read. Again, I have done the same thing, only the other way around. I remember buying a well-credentialed Elizabeth Moon book which became a DNF. It wasn’t space opera, you see.

So there you have it. You’ll find there are a whole raft of people offering to help you sell your books – for a price. By all means give them a try, people can’t buy what they don’t know about. Just bear in mind that what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. I firmly believe word of mouth is the only real way of making sales. But why people decide to buy particular books is beyond me.

I’m sure not complaining and I’m ridiculously thankful to Amazon for that ad. And if it did involve a sprinkle of fairy dust, it’s all good.

GASP!!! What’s happened to my website???

picture of smarmy tartJust the other day I clicked on the link to my website that I’ve got set up on my browser – and got the shock of my life. Instead of my sexy spaceship-and-planet header I got a picture of her (left). With MY name all over the website that wasn’t mine. It’s not a good feeling.

Yes, of course I panicked. Need you ask? My first thought was that my URL had been redirected or somehow hijacked, so I asked the first computer-savvy person I could think of on Facebook (as you do). It wasn’t until somebody said ‘but if you own the domain how can they do that?’ that the awful truth started to percolate into my fevered brain.

Like many people, I have several email accounts. The one I rarely used was the one to which the reminder notices were sent about my imminently expiring ownership. Sure enough, the domain had expired. Bummer. Expletives deleted. Well, I sure as hell wasn’t going to pay any pirate money to get my name back. I girded my loins (how do you do that?) and changed from gretavanderrol.com to gretavanderrol.net. So there. Easy peasy.

Er… no.

I’d have to go around to every site I belonged to that had a profile and change the link. Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, Facebook Author page, Goodreads, Savvy, TRR, Smashwords, Manic Readers… who else?

Then I’d have to contact everybody who had ever hosted a blog post of mine and then I’d have to contact anybody who had a post on my site (the link back to my site wouldn’t work any longer, you see). Then I’d have to contact owners of sites where I couldn’t update the info myself and ask them to make the change.

I was lucky; an online friend told me the smarmy tart at top left is a spambot that latches onto expired domain names and that the domain name itself was probably still hanging around with the people I bought it from and would remain so for a few month. Thanks to her, I went and recovered gretavanderrol.com and I also have gretavanderrol.net.

I’ve learnt a valuable lesson.

I’m off to document my online network. I have a spreadsheet where I record email addresses and resulting page references for sites where I have done guest blogs. I shall expand that SS to include every site where I have a profile and every guest post I host.

Take a tip from me – DON’T let your domain name expire. Even for a little author’s blog like mine, the amount of work in changing is much larger than you could possibly imagine.

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it

This morning Australia caught up with the rest of the world and acquired the ‘new’ Facebook interface amid the usual howls of protest. Oh, yes, I know that for many people, the howls will subside to mutterings and soon they’ll have forgotten there was ever another way. But for me anyway, this latest effort might well be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back. It’s taken a while, as the Facebook team has nibbled at my nerves and tested my mettle. Here’s a few I particularly remember.

1. Newsfeed defaults to your usual crowd

The first change that I found disturbing was when they changed the newsfeed so that it only showed the people with whom you often interact. It sounds good upfront, just talk to your usual crowd and the setting could be changed at the flick of a switch. But the alteration was hidden in the small print and needed for a few people to tell everyone else how to make the change back to seeing all news feed. It’s also self-perpetuating; if you don’t see what others are doing, how can you interact with them?

2. Press <enter> and you post

Sure, it saves a key stroke – provided you don’t want to paragraph your post. (In that case, you’d had to use shift/enter twice to add a blank line.) But we were all used to pressing <post>. Was this to emulate Twitter? Or so we could edit a comment (if we were quick)? It’s another thing one becomes accustomed to – but they were inconsistent. It doesn’t work like that on ‘fan’ pages.

3. Messages and chat were intermixed

All of a sudden all those little bits of inconsequential back and forth between me and some other person were mixed in with messages we’d exchanged. I was more than a little bit bemused to discover that all those bits of chat were still there, saved in some filing system in the sky. Silly of me, really, what goes on the net stays on the net. Nobody asked me if I wanted to see chats from 3 years ago. There it was. I sent messages to people when I wanted to keep the info (or not, as the case may be). Once again, what I wanted was pre-empted.

4. I could be added to groups without my permission

Back in the day, you invited people to groups. Then, if they wanted to join, the choice was theirs. Now, people can add me to groups without asking me. If I want out, I have to elect to do so. Then, if I change my mind, I have to ask to join and the request has to be approved. What is this? A pre-approved application for something I didn’t ask for? Do me a favour.

5. And now there’s f@#$ing tickertape

Fortunately, FB saw some sense and removed the hated chat interface they introduced down the right hand side of the page. But now they’ve brought in tickertape. I don’t know about you, but I HATE that little line of moving type down the bottom of the TV screen when news broadcasts or the morning show are on. Why? Because it distracts me and I read the damn thing instead of watching the show. A few posts ago I listed the five things I hate about websites. One I didn’t post (but plenty of other people did) was moving widget thingumebobs, which is what this tickertape thing is.

And all this without saying much about FB’s attempt to emulate Google +’s circles. I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing – it preserves privacy. The difficulty is that on FB it has to be retro-fitted which is always a problem. Good luck to them, I guess.

One thing very noticeable around FB this morning was a plethora of signs saying things like ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. I know there won’t be a general stampede for the exit – many of us have too much invested in Face Book. But I’ve been sidling towards the way out for a time, now. I might keep a presence there but if I find a better way of doing my network social interaction, I will.

Five steps to help you build a better website

Picture of a websiteBefore I left the rat-race to become a full-time author I used to work in IT, designing, building and testing web sites for large corporations. The basic techniques I used for them will work just as well for smaller sites. So, if you’re ready, let’s begin.

1. What is the purpose of your site?

Sorry, but ‘I read somewhere I need a web site’ isn’t good enough. Are you selling something? Are you providing people with information so that they don’t have to ring your office? Are you promoting a cause, trying to get people to donate or just raising awareness? If you’re a writer, you’re probably trying to attract more readers, sell more books (if you’re published). You might have more than one purpose. That’s fine. Go and make a list and then order your items by importance to you.

2. Who is your audience?

Think carefully about this, and get as specific as you possibly can. If you’re a writer, you may be able to say your audience is the same as the audience for your books. But be careful. If you write children’s books, the target audience for your web site is the people who buy books for children. If you write ‘women’s fiction’ your target is not just ‘women’ – it may be a specific age group or tailored to women interested in fashion etc. Specific is good.

3. What should my content be?

This is where ‘audience’ is all-important. What will your audience want to see? What will engage them, have them coming back? For a writer, free content such as short stories may be useful, or excerpts from your books. If you write romance or chick lit, fashion photos or pictures of hunky men might be appropriate. Interviews with other authors, reviews of books, factual articles about your topic (eg. Science-based articles for science fiction writers). But don’t forget the PURPOSE of your site. Always aim your content at your purpose, remembering your AUDIENCE.

My advice would be to keep your content simple – especially early on in your web experience. I refer you back to my earlier post on 5 things I hate about websites. Do read the comments, too. These people may well be part of your audience.

Studies have shown that dark text on a light background works best. Sure, you might think blood red text on a black ground suits your horror novels but it’s bloody hard to read. Also, short posts are more likely to be read than long ones.

Choose your graphics to suit your purpose and your audience.

By all means use videos like book trailers or the like. But bear in mind that if you ONLY offer people a video on how to do something you might be limiting your message to those with fast internet connections.

4. How should you structure the site?

Do what the professionals do – create a site map. Sit down with the drawing tools of your choice and map out how the user will get through the pages on your site. For instance, on my site I have a menu item called ‘Books’. From that page the user can select either ‘historical fiction’ or ‘science fiction’. For each of those pages I have other pages for reviews and for historical fiction I have pages for those interested in the history. (Since I wrote this I split the historical content into a different blog.) The top level of your site map is the menu which appears on your header. People should be able to look at that and have a very good idea of what they’ll find under each item. For very complex sites, that does become difficult. It’s usually circumvented by grouping content in a way that’s understandable to the target audience, bearing in mind the purpose of the site. Remember, too, that users may land anywhere in your site. Make sure they can navigate, regardless.

5. Test

I am amazed at how many large sites have so obviously never been user tested. In my past life, we would write scripts to test our website and pay members of the public to test them by going through the tasks on the script. We also asked people to choose between colour schemes and graphics. You may not want to pay people, but get your friends to take a critical look. Also, try to get hold of somebody who has a slow connection to find out how fast your site loads.

And finally…

There’s no right answer to any of this and if you use a package like Blogger or WordPress.com you will be restrained by the limitations imposed by the package. Some things you just have to work around. My blog is my ‘home’ page because that’s how the package works – and also because the content is constantly being refreshed, which is an important factor for the search engines. As far as I’m concerned, it supports my purpose, and attracts my audience.

Thanks for stopping by. I hope this has helped and good luck with your web presence.

Five Things I hate about Websites

Picture of a websiteThere’s a lot of websites in the world these days and we’ve all had our share of experiences in navigating our way around them. I’m no different to any other user – I go to websites looking for stuff and if I don’t find it – I don’t stay. What are the things most likely to turn me off?

1. Have a landing page

You know what I mean? You click on the link and it invites you to ‘click here to enter’. You’re kidding me, aren’t you? Didn’t I just do that? Good luck with your projects…

2. Take more than a few seconds to load

Please understand that I and many other people in this world do not have access to lightning fast broadband. I couldn’t have even if I paid for the mega plan which allows movie downloads. In places like India ‘broadband’ is 256kbps. So although your wonderful, sophisticated site with the video clip and the revolving banner may look good in downtown New York, it’ll take so long to load I’ll go away. Heck, I even give up on trying to edit my own site when it all slows down to turtle speed.

3. Make me use ‘best guess’ to get around

This is (unfortunately) most often true of large, complex sites, like Government departments. Here I am on the home page. I want to know about x. I gaze at the menus, maybe even use the search facility. No x. OK, let’s try this entry on the menu. Surely there’ll be a bit about x there. Nope. Let’s see now… Let me tell you – unless my life depends upon it, I’m not going to stay messing about on your home page looking for the ‘contact’ page or some item on your list of products. If you want to know what I mean, go to a few sites like Brother that manufactures printers and see if you can find how to update your printer driver.

4. Bombard me with ads

I know people take advantage of paid ads on their sites. I understand. But there’s a limit. I particularly hate the ‘you are our 5 millionth customer – click here to see what you’ve won’. Yes, I can prevent some of these and I don’t get most pop-ups but I doubt you could filter them all. And having to go through an ad (like a landing page) to get to your site? Sorry, you’ll have to do without my patronage.

5. Don’t bother about spelling and grammar

A word to the wise; read your copy aloud. I’m likely to stay on your home page for long enough to find what I want or not at all. I’m unlikely to want to read a few pages of sanctimonious statements about your desire to offer the very best service and a list of your KPI’s. Get your message out briefly (like in less than 500 words) and make sure it is grammatically correct and that there are no spelling mistakes. I’m an Australian – you can use American or English spelling – as long as it’s correct.

Okay, rant over. What things about websites get up your nose? And yes, I will write a post about things you could do to make your visitors’ web experience the best you can manage.