Friday, October 31, 2008

Gmail New in Labs: Canned Responses

Hello, you've reached Chad's mailbox. Thanks for your email about the latest Labs feature: Canned Responses, or email for the truly lazy. I'm on paternity leave so I won't be able to respond personally. Instead, I hope you'll enjoy this automated message.

If you're sick of typing out the same reply every time someone emails you with a common question, now you can compose your reply once and save the message text with the "Canned responses" button. Later, you can open that same message and send it again and again.

It couldn't get any easier unless Gmail automatically pushed the Send button. If you're lazy enough to think that would be a good idea, then read on, friend.

Gmail already lets you create filters based on a combination of keywords, sender, recipients, and more in your incoming messages. Turn on Canned Responses in Labs, and you can set a filter to grab one of your saved responses, create an automated reply, and hit the Send button for you.

You can set up different automated messages for different keywords, just like you said you wanted. (We're friends, so I trust you to use this power responsibly.)

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by @hajime(ja) / @hajyme(en)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Google moves towards single sign-on with OpenID

Currently users are required to create individual passwords for many websites they visit, but users would prefer to avoid this step so they could visits websites more easily. Similarly, many websites on the Internet have asked for a way to enable users to log into their sites without forcing them to create another password. If users could log into sites without needing another password, it would allow websites to provide a more personalized experience to their users.

In September we announced some research that we shared as part of an effort by the OpenID community to evaluate the user experience of federated login. Other companies like Yahoo have also published their user research. Starting today, we are providing limited access to an API for an OpenID identity provider that is based on the user experience research of the OpenID community. Websites can now allow Google Account users to login to their website by using the OpenID protocol. We hope the continued evolution of both the technical features of OpenID, as well as the improvements in user experience. will lead to a solution that can be widely deployed for federated login. One of the companies using this new service is Raju Vegesna at ZoHo says that "We now offer all our users the ability to login to ZoHo using their Google Account to avoid the need to create yet another login and password."

The initial version of the API will use the OpenID 2.0 protocol to enable websites to validate the identity of a Google Account user, including the optional ability to request the user's e-mail address. Below is an example of the flow that a user might see if he or she starts at a website that uses this new feature:

The website could use a modified login box that looks like the one below. If the user enters a Gmail address and indicates that he or she does not have a password for this site, then the site can redirect him or her to Google.

The user would then be taken to the Google website and asked to confirm whether he or she wants to sign in to KidMallPics.

Finally, the user would be redirected back to KidMallPics, where he or she would be immediately signed in.

More information about this new API can be found on the Open ID page in Google Code. To request access to the limited trial, please visit our Google Federated Login discussion group and register using the online registration form.

Google is also working with the open source community on ways to combine the OAuth and OpenID protocol in the future. That way a website can not only request the user's identity and e-mail address, but can also request access to information available via OAuth-enabled APIs such as Google Data APIs as well as standard data formats such as Portable Contacts and OpenSocial REST APIs. In the future, this should allow a website to immediately provide a much more streamlined, personalized and socially relevant experience for users when they log in to trusted websites.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Seven of the greatest scientific hoaxes

For this week's issue of New Scientist I edited a review of The Sun and the Moon by Matthew Goodman, which tells the story of the great moon hoax of 1835. Read the review here.

This got me thinking about other great scientific hoaxes in the past. After doing a bit of digging, I was amazed by how many there were – and at the variety and creativity of the hoaxes. Here are a few of the best.

Of course, there are serious cases of scientific fraud, such as thestem cell researchers recently found guilty of falsifying data and the South Korean cloning fraud. The following stories, however, are not so serious.

Piltdown Man

In 1912, solicitor and amateur palaeontologist Charles Dawson "found" the Piltdown fossils, a skull and jawbone that appeared to be half-man half-ape, in Sussex. They were hailed as the evolutionary "missing link" between apes and humans.

It was over 40 years later, in 1953, that the fossil was exposed as a fake. In fact, the skull was constructed from a medieval human cranium attached to the jaw of an orang-utan.

The Cardiff Giant

A ten-foot "petrified man" was dug up on a small farm in Cardiff, New York, in October 1869. The "Cardiff Giant" became a huge news story and many Americans travelled to see it.

Early in 1870, it was revealed as a fake, the creation of New Yorker George Hull, who had paid for it to be carved out of stone.

Beringer's fraudulent fossils

Physician Johann Beringer was amazed when he was presented with fossils "found" in Wurzburg, Germany, in 1725, which depicted incredible scenes: the forms of birds, bees, snails, lizards, plants with flowers, frogs mating and insects feeding, not to mention comets, moons and suns.

It turned out that he was the victim of an elaborate plot: envious colleagues of Beringer had planted the fossils.

Unfortunately, Beringer fell for it hook, line and sinker, and even published a book to tell the world about the fossils. Rumour has it that once Beringer realised the hoax, he tried to buy up any unsold copies of his book. (See Johann Beringer and the fraudulent fossils)

There are many more examples of fossil fraud, such as the fake "entombed toad" and the fake fossil fly in amber.

The Sokal hoax

In 1996, American physicist Alan Sokal submitted a paper loaded with nonsensical jargon to the journal Social Text, in which he argued that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. (Read Sokal's paper)

When the journal published it, Sokal revealed that the paper was in fact a spoof. The incident triggered a storm of debate about the ethics of Sokal's prank.

The spaghetti tree

In 1957, the BBC show Panorama broadcast a programme about the spaghetti tree in Switzerland. It showed a family harvesting pasta that hung from the branches of the tree.

After watching the programme, hundreds of people phoned in asking how they could grow their own tree. Alas,it was an April Fools' Day joke.

Watch the BBC's spaghetti tree footage

The Upas tree

An account was published in the London Magazine in 1783 by a Dutch surgeon named Foersch (his initials were variously given as NP and JN). It claimed the existence of a tree on the island of Java so poisonous that it killed everything within a 15-mile radius.

Read the original account (scroll down to find it)

This was the start of a legend. Even Erasmus Darwin wrote about it in a poem in 1791. A note to the poem read, "There is a poison-tree in the island of Java, which is said by its effluvia to have depopulated the country... in a district of 12 or 14 miles round it, the face of the earth is quite barren and rocky, intermixed only with the skeletons of men and animals; affording a scene of melancholy beyond what poets have described or painters delineated."

You really can find the Upas tree in Indonesia. Though not as potent as legend would have it, the latex of the tree does contain a powerful toxin, which was traditionally used on arrow points.

Read more about the Upas tree (PDF: go to page 8)

The secret of immortality

Johann Heinrich Cohausen, an 18th-century physician, wrote a treatise on the prolongation of life, entitledHermippus redivivus. Amongst other secrets of longevity, it claimed that life could be prolonged by taking an elixir produced by collecting the breath of young women in bottles.

Actually, Cohausen admitted in the last few pages of the work that it was a satire, so any gullible readers wouldn't have been duped for too long

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

14 free tools that reveal why people abandon your website

Here’s a big problem with web design: If you want to make your website better at turning visitors into customers (or subscribers), you need to understand why most of your visitors are leaving!

But those people come and go without trace! How do you know what they wanted? How do you know what would have persuaded them to take action?

If you owned a real-life bricks-and-mortar store, this would be easy: You’d hear their objections. You’d be able to ask questions. You’d hear what they muttered as they headed for the door.

Capturing the voice-of-the-customer is more difficult with the web, but it can be done. Here are 14 free tools to get you started!

Google Analytics

Track where your visitors came from, and which links they clicked. Google Analytics—get it here!

Web analytics software is essential for understanding your visitors. It tells you detailed statistics about the visitors to your website—where they came from, and which links they clicked once they arrived.

Despite being free, Google Analytics is surprisingly sophisticated, and is sufficient for most websites.

Recommended Resources

Crazy EggEasy-to-interpret “heatmaps” showing exactly where people clicked (even if it wasn’t a link). Crazy Egg—get it here!

Google Analytics will tell you what links your visitors click…but Crazy Egg shows you which parts of your pages your visitors click on. There’s a subtle difference: Crazy Egg shows you clicks even if they weren’t on a link. This information is displayed as a “heat map”, like this…

Crazy Egg Heatmap

There are several advantages to this approach:

(i) Crazy Egg will even show things that are not clickable. You’ll discover that visitors are clicking on parts of the page that aren’t links, but perhaps should be. For example, if you discover they are clicking on a product photo, you may choose to allow the picture to be magnified, or you may decide they want to read more information about it. Similarly, they may wrongly believe that a particular graphic is navigation.

(ii) It will also reveal, at a glance, which parts of the page are getting the most attention. This can be particularly useful when showing the data to people who aren’t experienced in web analytics.

(iii) If several of the links on your page lead to the same URL—for example, if there are three links to a particular product page—Crazy Egg will show you which of the links your visitor clicked on. This is possible with analytics, but requires some set up.

Our recommendation: Install Crazy Egg on your most important pages (in terms of revenue and traffic) and on any pages you feel may have usability issues.


“In-page” web analytics, showing videos of visitors’ screens(!) The perfect complement to Google Analytics. ClickTale—get it here!

ClickTale refers to itself as being “in-page web analytics” (as opposed to other analytics software which is largely concerned with movement between pages). It’s similar to CrazyEgg, but also measures keystrokes, scrolling and movement of the mouse. It has several useful functions:

(i) Ever wondered how far people scroll down your pages?ClickTale can show you, using an easy-to-interpret heatmap. On really long pages, it can also be useful to see which parts of the page get the most attention (based on the average viewing time). This can be great for identifying which parts of your page are most important to your visitors.

(ii) Want to watch movies of your visitors’ screens, as they use your website? ClickTale allows you to do that too. Each visitor’s browsing session is stored as a Flash video. (There is a limit to how many videos can be stored). It may sound impossible, and ever-so-slightly creepy, but it’s true. It’s just like you’re looking over their shoulders. You can even see their cursor and their keystrokes.

You can choose which video to watch, based on attributes such as the visitor’s country of origin, their time on site, or the number of pages they visited. You may choose to watch videos of people who appear to be struggling—for example, those who visit the same page several times.

(iii) Study how people are interacting with your forms. ClickTale has five reports that allow you to see how visitors are interacting with your forms. For example, the Drop Report shows you the percentage of visitors that dropped out at each field whilst filling in a form—so you can fix the form fields that are losing you customers.

(iv) Get a feel for how people use websites. ClickTale is not a substitute for carrying out usability tests. However, watching a few videos will give you a better idea of how people interact with websites. You can watch the videos at high speed too (up to ten times normal speed).

The following video gives a great overview of what ClickTale does…

Another tool, called TeaLeaf, provides similar functionality to ClickTale. TeaLeaf tends to be used by companies such as financial companies that are regulated with respect to data storage.

Live chat using "Google Talk Chatback"

Let your visitors tell you what’s missing from the page! Google Talk Chatback—get it here!

Live chat can allow you to hear from visitors who wouldn’t phone you. This may be for a number of reasons:

  • because they don’t have access to a phone
  • because they are in a public place (or at work) and don’t want to be heard
  • because live chat doesn’t cost money
  • because they don’t want to be stuck at the end of a phone waiting for someone to answer

or, perhaps most importantly

  • because a phone call can be more of a “commitment” than a live chat.

We use, which provides some great reporting tools, but seeing as this is a list of free tools, we’d recommend you check out Google Talk Chatback.

What you can learn from live chat…

  1. Which pages people are having problems with.
  2. Which products people are asking questions about.
  3. What are their main questions, concerns and objections.
  4. Which of your answers, reassurance and counter-objections persuade the visitor to take further action.

If your live chat is being provided by your customer service staff, you may choose to read through the transcripts of the chats on a regular basis, to look for insights that can be applied to your website.

An added bonus!: Using live chat may actually increase your conversion rate, because you (or one of your customer service staff) can personally help the customers to take action.

Here’s a nice website for Google Talk tips and tricks.


Ask your visitors all your marketing questions.
SurveyMonkey—get it here!

Your customers know the answers to a surprising number of your marketing problems. Why not ask them?

SurveyMonkey provides an easy way of sending out surveys, then collecting and interpreting the results.

Here are a few good questions to ask your customers

  • “How likely is it that you would recommend us to a friend or colleague?”

Answers should be on a scale from 0 to 10.

This is often referred to as the Net Promoter question. It can be deceptively useful. See this page for the theory behind it, and details of how to analyze the data from it.

  • A similar question is…

“In the past 6 months, have you criticized or spoken highly of [YourCompanyName] to a friend, colleague or family members? If so, please give details”.

This is a great way of jogging the customer’s memory, to elicit specific criticism or specific praise. The latter can notify you of a potential testimonial.

  • “If you could have us creating something just for you, what would you have us create?”

Your customers can be a great source of ideas for new products, and this question is a great way of collecting those ideas. A more straightforward—but less thought-provoking—wording would be

“What other products or services should we offer?”

  • If you don’t know how you differ from your competitors, there’s a good chance that your customers can tell you! This simple question can be really useful:

“How would you describe us to a friend?”

This reveals why your customers like you. Similarly, you could ask something along the lines of

“Which other options did you consider before choosing our service, and why did you decide to use us?”

It’s particularly important to ask this question before any re-branding exercise, to save you from “throwing out the baby with the bathwater”.

  • Do you use us for all your [ProductType] or do you also use alternative companies?


“If so, why?”

  • You may choose to ask some questions to a small fraction of your customers. This particularly applies to the following question, which could potentially encourage your customers to shop around.

“Why do you use [YourCompanyName or YourProductName] rather than the alternatives?”

  • If you want your customers to use you more often, you could do worse than to ask them…

“What would persuade you to use us more often?”

Can you see how this can save you a lot of trial and error?

  • If your customers are likely to know other potential customers, this question can be useful…

“How could we persuade your friends or colleagues to use us?”


“If you were in charge of our company, how would you persuade people like yourself to use us?”

  • They may also have strong views about where you should be advertising, so you might want to ask…

“If you were in charge of our company, how would you “spread the word” about us?”

Asking questions to your non-customers

One of the hardest tasks in web marketing is to capture the views of visitors who have no interest in what you’re currently offering. In this situation, you may choose to drive some of that traffic to a survey page, and offer an incentive—maybe a free report—for completing the survey. By asking open-ended questions to these visitors, you can learn what they were searching for, and what you’d need to do to provide it.

Other things you need to know about your customers

You need to know which of your products your customers like most, and why.

Note: the products that are most-liked aren’t necessarily the ones that you sell most of. Just because a restaurant might sell a lot of lasagne, it doesn’t mean their lasagne is well-liked. In fact, it might be deterring customers from ever coming back.

By knowing which of your products is most-liked, you can…

  • design the most effective sales funnel, so your most-liked products aren’t hidden away.
  • improve your existing products, to make purchasers more likely to buy from you again.

Note that your survey can constantly be changing, to allow you to keep getting deeper insights into your visitors and customers. One survey may reveal insights that you decide to pursue with questions in subsequent surveys.

Avinash Kaushnik's exit survey, 4Q

Ask your visitors why they visited you, and whether their visit was successful. 4Q—get it here!

Web analytics guru Avinash Kaushik suggests that you should survey your visitors as they leave your website. Here are the questions he proposes you ask. They can be incredibly useful:

Question 1: “Based on today’s visit, how would you rate your site experience overall?”

Question 2: “Which of the following best describes the primary purpose of your visit?”

Question 3: “Were you able to complete the purpose of your visit today?”

If they answer yes to Question 3…

Question 4: “What do you value most about the [company] website?”

If they answer no to Question 3…

Question 4: “Please tell us why you were not able to fully complete the purpose of your visit today?”

A company called iPerceptions teamed up with Avinash to offer a ready-made way of implementing this survey on your website. Visit to start using it today.

Usability testing (in Starbucks)

Get a big dose of reality by watching your users in action.Steve Krug’s book—get it here!

A usability test simply involves observing someone using your website and noting any issues that arise. It’s not rocket science—in fact, it sounds a bit mundane—but it’s perhaps the most useful technique on this list.

There are several ways of carrying out usability tests, but most involve giving the participant a task to carry out, asking them to “speak aloud” their thoughts, and recording the results, somehow, for later analysis.

To get started, visit Steve Krug’s website, and download this excellent script. Steve Krug is the author of a great book calledDon’t Make Me Think—A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. We highly recommend it. Steve’s script was designed for “lab usability tests”, so you can ignore the references to microphones and screen recordings.

We recommend you find the nearest public place with Wi-Fi (Starbucks is a good choice!), and start getting people to look at your website. Simply take notes with pen and paper, and you’ll soon have a huge list of ideas for improving your webpages. You’ll be amazed how many insights you can get from carrying out just three tests.

So, bookmark this page, grab your laptop…and do some usability tests now!

Tip: You tend to learn more from non-web-savvy visitors than you do from techie ones. Techie people tend to be better at coping with pages that contain errors, whereas other users are more easily “de-railed”.

Tips when talking to your visitors

  • During the interview, encourage criticism.
  • Present yourself as being independent. The interviewee needs to know that you won’t take the criticism personally.
  • You can elicit more criticism by introducing the interview with “We feel that our website needs to be improved. Would you agree?” or“We’ve just started working with a new web company, what do you think of this?”

Who should carry out the usability tests?

Many of our clients choose to do the interviewing themselves (we normally recommend that the copywriter gets involved somehow). If you want to outsource that too, you can. We recommend doing the first few yourself. Trust us… you’ll learn loads :-)

If you’d like to outsource your usability testing, we’d recommend…

Ethnio—a free tool for recruiting participants for usability tests

Pop-up survey allows you to recruit participants for your usability tests. Ethnio—get it here!

Once you have fixed the more obvious problems with your website, now’s a good time to carry out some usability tests on qualifiedprospects—that is, people who actually visit your website.

You could do this by asking existing customers to carry out usability tests, and that’s often a good idea. However, your customers have already used your website, and, by definition, they managed to overcome its shortcomings. Asking your customers whether they like you can be like asking your husband or wife if they love you: of course they do, by definition!

Ideally you want to interview your visitors who aren’t customers yet. That’s where Ethnio comes to the rescue…

Ethnio provides an easy way of adding a pop-up survey to your website, which asks your visitors if they’d like to participate in a usability test. You can customize the survey, so you can ask them details about themselves, such as why they visited your site and whether this is their first visit. You’ll probably have to offer them a small cash incentive for participating in your tests. People’s willingness to participate depends on which type of market you’re in; visitors to some types of website, such as financial services, tend to be particularly reluctant to start a conversation. In other markets, visitors love to get involved.

Once a visitor has completed the survey, their details appear in a table in Ethnio’s interface. Based on their answers, you can decide whether you’d like to carry out a usability test with them. That’s all that Ethnio does; once you have the visitor’s details, you can interview them however you like—by phone (with screensharing software such as GoToMeeting) or in person.

Until recently Ethnio cost thousands of dollars, so it was only affordable to large corporations. Now it’s free (albeit in a stripped-down form).

Potential drawback

Bear in mind that the people who want to be interviewed don’t necessarily represent your average visitor—in particular, they may be more time-rich and cash-poor than your average visitor. But they are still much more qualified than most people.

Further resources

  • Ethnio provides a great example script to use when interviewing visitors.
  • We use GoToMeeting for screen sharing
  • is good for the phone calls, as it allows you to download an MP3 of the call afterwards, so you can keep a record of your visitors’ comments and get them transcribed.
  • You’ll probably need to offer an incentive to get people involved. We like to reward people with Amazon Thank You Cards, because they are quick to send, and because visitors instantly recognize them as being valuable, not some sneaky voucher that’s full of weasel clauses and restrictions.

Use your ears and mouth (and go outside)

Use your ears and mouth (and go outside). If you can’t sell it face-to-face, how can you expect to sell it online?

If you’re like us, you spend too long indoors in front of your computer. But to really understand your website’s visitors, you need to seek out opportunities to meet them.

Got a website selling diet plans? Then go to your local slimming club and talk to people. Get to know them, listen to their opinions, show them your website, and ask them all the things you can’t ask your website’s visitors.

Alternatively, spend a few hours interviewing your company’s customer support staff—or anyone who regularly sells to your customers. They spend all day speaking with the website’s visitors, and understand them better than anyone.

You’d be surprised how much effort we go to in order to speak with real customers. Someday we’ll write about it. Not now though, because we need to tell you about…
Refer-a-friend emails

Your customers are your best salespeople—so listen to how they sell! Tell-a-Friend King—get it here!

Do you have a refer-a-friend system?

More importantly, do you have a refer-a-friend system that allows the customer to send a personalized email to their friend?

If so, you are sitting on a goldmine of marketing research. You see, those emails contain the exact answers to the question, “Why do people buy from you?” Companies spend a lot of time deciding what their positioning should be, and what wording they should use in their advertising. By reading through your refer-a-friend emails (Privacy Policy permitting), you’ll see how your customers sell your service to their friends.

To some extent, their reasons for buying will reflect the reasons you gave in your advertising, so, in particular, keep an eye out for discrepancies. These emails will reveal

  1. things that are important to your customers, but that don’t get emphasized in your webpages.
  2. things that you think are major selling points, but that your customers don’t mention.

Also, pay particular attention to the exact wording they use. For example, the words bargain, cheap and great deal mean very different things in the customer’s mind, so it’s worth using the exact same language they use.

There are loads of free tools for refer-a-friend, and some of clients prefer to build their own. The one we recommend isn’t free. It’s calledTell A Friend King. It has a free trial, followed by a nearly-free charge of just $6.48/month.

Allow your visitors to easily give feedback on your webpages.Kampyle—get it here!

Kampyle allows your visitors to give feedback on your site, via a little button that sits at the edge of each webpage. (Ours is that greenGIVE US FEEDBACK button that follows you down the right-hand side of this page.) The button leads to a pop-up survey, which allows the visitor to give their feedback.

The website’s owner can then sign in to Kampyle’s website to see an interface for managing all the feedback that has been received. (It feels a bit like an email client, having an inbox and folders.) If the visitor leaves their email address, the website’s owner can easily inform them when they have responded to the feedback.

Here’s a nice little video overview of Kampyle…

We first mentioned Kampyle a few months ago. Since then, one of our clients has received a double-digit improvement in conversion rate as a result of an insight that was obtained from Kampyle.
Internal Search - Google

Would you like to know what your visitors want? They’re typing it into your website’s search tool.

If you don’t already have one, add a “search this site” feature to your website. Google Site Search and Google’s Free Custom Search Engine enable your visitors to search your site using Google.

Here’s Google’s guide to setting up Google Site Search…

Not only does this help your visitors find the page they’re looking for, it also provides you with a wealth of information about how to improve your website.

Are they searching for content that doesn’t exist? If so, consider adding it to your website.

Are they searching for content that does exist? If so,

(i) check that the search would have revealed the most relevant page

(ii) consider whether the content they were looking for should be added to—or made more prominent on—the page they searched from.

Here are some great resources for internal search:

Serph - what are people saying about you?

A search engine for tracking what people are saying about you.Serph—get it here!

Serph is a search engine that tracks buzz in real time, allowing you to discover what people are saying about your website on blogs, forums and on social media networks. It provides a useful addition to Google Alerts, which you should also be using.

As you are reading through the results from Serph, make a list of what people are saying. What do they like about your website? What don’t they like about it?

Then consider how you can fix it. And test the new version against your current design, using Google Website Optimizer (which is mentioned next).

When we recently re-designed our own website,, we used this technique to make a list of people that had commented on our old website. We then personally asked them for feedback when testing our new design.

Other similar tools worth trying include Twing and Omgili.
Google Website Optimizer

Test different versions of your webpages to see which is the best. Google Website Optimizer—get it here!

Now you have a better understanding of your visitors, you’ll have loads of ideas about what to change on your website.

But hold your horses…don’t just make those changes and hope for the best. You need to test your ideas!

Instead of guessing what content your visitors like best, test everything using Google Website Optimizer (GWO), a free tool for carrying out split tests (in particular, A/B split tests and multivariate tests).

Specifically, GWO allows you to…

  • create loads of different variations of a webpage
  • then measure which of them is best at getting your visitors to
    • spend money
    • sign up to your newsletter
    • or whatever it is you want them to do

…so you can promote the winning page to become your official new version.

Sign up for Google Website Optimizer here.

However, although Google Website Optimizer gives you an amazing ability to test what variation works best, you’ll quickly discover that by far the hardest part is knowing what to test…which is why we wrote this page. You might also be interested in another report we wrote,Google Website Optimizer 101, which contains a lot more information about GWO (plus the kitchen sink).

Here’s Google’s explanation of how GWO works…


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