Nov 09 2012

More Winners!

In Rehearsal, Dud Muurmand practicing before Gothla UK Friday Showcase in 2012

In Rehearsal

This photo, of Dud Muurmand ‘In Rehearsal,’ won first place in Competition League Round 4, Open DPI category, at Shepshed and District Camera Club on 2nd October this year.

The photo was taken at maximum ISO on my Canon 5D mkii as Dud tried out the stage prior to the Friday Night Showcase on July 13th at GothlaUK 2012, The Y! in Leicester.

I also took 3rd place in the Themed Print category, ‘Snow,’ with ‘Frozen Pond on the River Lin,’ taken in early February this year.


Frozen Pond on the River Lin

Frozen Pond on the River Lin

Jul 09 2012

Winning At Photography

Perhaps it is only the truly creative person who labours long in isolation to perfect his or her craft. The rest of us like to have some acknowledgement and appreciation as we go along.

So it is with my photography. The Open University’s interactive ten week course encouraged its students to upload to a common pool of photos each week and to comment helpfully on each other’s efforts.

Most of us felt bereaved after the course had finished. Whatever could we aim at in the ensuing weeks? We had made helpful online contacts. Although we’d never actually met, we valued each other’s opinions and constructive criticism.

We continued to support each other via flickr groups. But there comes a point when either interest wanes, or  you feel that you want to test your ability further. That is the point when you join a competitive camera club.

I’ve been a member of Shepshed and District Camera Club for 18 months. I’ve entered the competition league and submitted entries for all contests so far this year, being elected Assistant Competition Secretary somewhere along the way.

I have learnt a lot from judges’ adjudications, which has encouraged me simply to go on taking photos. Familiarity with equipment and technique shows in the quality of work that you produce.

I’ve also been placed with at least one entry in most competitions and am making a small dent in the club’s league.

My biggest success to date has been with a view of the skyline at Garendon Park, just east of Junction 23 on the M1. A landowner in the 19th century had a folly built on the skyline, which we locals nickname The Temple of Venus. Evergreen trees resembling cypresses were also planted along the ridge. In winter, in the right sunlight, the viewpoint is remarkably Tuscan. Which is why I strayed on to private property one very cold winter afternoon in mid-January, in the golden hour before the sun went down, to take a photo entitled Tuscan Landscape in Loughborough.

Tuscan Landscape in Loughborough

Tuscan Landscape in Loughborough

Not only has this photo taken first prize in a club contest, it has also been used several times by my local newspaper, the Shepshed/Loughborough Echo, to illustrate stories about the fate of Garendon Park, notably on the front page of the edition dated June 15th 2012. The editor rang me personally for permission to publish!

I was also very gratified when three of my prints were displayed at the Ashby-de-la-Zouch Jubilee photographic exhibition in June.

I have finally succeeded in assembling photos taken in Oman in January and March 2004 into an entry into the camera club’s slideshow challenge, which was very well received. The club will be introducing an annual slideshow contest from next year.

Please enjoy Journeys in Oman.


Apr 16 2012

Long Time Gone From SoozNooz

Having been away from my blog for so long, I hardly know where to start again. I have not been idle. I just haven’t been recording it here.

For one thing, I’ve been furnishing a new apartment in Tangiers, Morocco, just 100m from the beach one way and 500m from the railway station in the other direction. You can sip tea in bed in the mornings gazing out over the Mediterranean. You can also rent it from me for a relaxing break. See the photos.

As well as  making a considerable investment, I also had a great adventure, travelling overland through France and Spain to Tangier arriving finally at the new Port-Méditerranée 30 km east of the city. Which is when the fun began with Customs. I was fortunate to be travelling with my Moroccan friend, Aziz, who was able to contact his friend in charge. The chief gave orders that we could be allowed through with household goods. Otherwise we could have been detained all weekend.

We were not the only travellers. Decrepit vans were piled high with the sort of stuff that people in UK take to recycling centres. Once cleared through Customs, they would be travelling south through Morocco to The Sahara, selling the goods on the way. I have a poor photo. If I can get the webhost to allow me to change permissions on my folders, I might even be able to upload it for you.

We were delayed originally because we had brought photo canvases which I had made. The Customs officials had been alerted to the theft of a painting from The Louvre in Paris only the day before, so we became suspects. I was mortified when Customs men began flinging them on the ground at the back of the van, and ventured to put them back carefully into their packaging. Aziz was alarmed, as he said my actions would be regarded as suspect.

After leaving Leicester at 8pm on a Wednesday evening, we arrived finally at the villa in Ksar Sghrir at midnight on the Friday. Sleep? What was that? A few snatched hours in the front of the 4×4 in garage lay-bys at irregular intervals.

Other than Morocco, I have been busy studying again with the Open University. I took the new Geology course and got a distinction. ‘So I should!’ exclaimed my husband, being a Geology graduate in the first place. However, it did teach me the new way of looking at Sedimentology, so was well worth it.

The following year, I took U101, Design and Design Thinking. I’ve never thought of myself as a designer, but discovered that I do it all the time. I’m not sure I feel particularly compatible with people who call themselves designers though.

It’s the short, ten week courses, that have been real eye-openers. I took T189 Digital Photography late in 2010, which has opened up new routes and interests via photography. Thus I have been recording what’s been happening to me through my camera rather than through writing. See the evidence on Flickr.  I also did well on the partner course T150 Digital Audio.

More to describe another time. In the meantime, I shall have to harangue my webhost about ftp permissions on my directories.

Jan 02 2011

The client’s responsibility for SEO

In my previous post, way back in June 2010, I tried to emphasize that what is called Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), consists of several tasks which need to be met by different skillsets. There was a follow-up comment on the LinkedIn discussion to the effect, “If it works then Yes; if it doesn’t, then No!” Agreed, but what exactly did the client ask for and expect?

As a website builder who feels that she incorporates search engine accessibility into her products, I would like my clients to be aware of the different facets of SEO, of what enables a website to show on the first page of results.

There is so much to making a website visible on the web, that it is truly fantasy when potential clients expect results within a month to six weeks. And are appalled at the cost of doing SEO thoroughly.

You may have been assailed by emails from overseas companies offering SEO services. Be aware that anyone can provide an automated report that purports to diagnose SEO ‘errors’ on your website. I recently saw such a report of four pages of narrow spaced script, in which four short lines stood out. And I could have told the client those points by just looking at the website for less than five minutes.

SEO has been defined as comprising two parts: online and offline optimisation.

You need to get the online optimisation right at the outset and you need the full cooperation of your web designer to do it. Thereafter, the followup work is offline optimisation – which you can do yourself, even if it is time-consuming.

Online optimisation ensures that websites are easily navigable by both visitors and search engines, that titles, meta-keywords and meta-descriptions are included, that headings, images and links are appropriately styled and tagged, and that the website loads quickly. Make sure that your designer/developer understands and acts on implementing SEO friendly urls.

But it’s the offline optimisation that takes time, continuing effort and relentless attention to detail. Offline optimisation requires you, the website owner, to put effort into building incoming links, that your unique selling point is clear, that your terms of trading and customer service are transparent and that your website visitors feel that they got good value by visiting. Extrapolate this into other online marketing outlets, and you will note that you need to monitor what people are saying about your business on Facebook, Twitter and in reviews on shopping or other consumer websites. The businessman who wanted to take TripAdvisor to court for publishing bad reviews about his hotel might have won the case but he committed a marketing catastrophe.

Here are various resources on the web that might help put SEO into more context.

Data about online usage

Much of what you read about how websites are found is anecdotal. Websites like Mashable and TechRadar that publish the news about what’s trending online pull in data from elsewhere. You need to go to their sources, such as Experian Hitwise and Nielsen to find the data for yourself.

If your resources are a little more slender and you’re looking for a summary rather than data, try eConsultancy which publishes regular reports on online behaviour, email marketing and valuable guidance on SEO, how to convert customers and what to pay attention to in ecommerce sites.

Inbound marketing services from Hubspot

Hubspot offers online marketing software services. Their website tells you that Hubspot will:

  • help you get found online by more qualified visitors
  • show you how to convert more visitors into leads
  • give you tools to close those leads efficiently
  • provide analytics to help make smart marketing investments.

If you’re unsure about how to start offline optimisation for yourself, with the free tools that are available on the web, Hubspot may not be a bad place to start. The company offers a 30 day free trial for you to find out. It also offers free webinars (online seminars) which will guide you through the optimisation process.

Disclaimer: I have not used the full Hubspot service myself, although I have used some of their trial features in the past.

How Google finds you

Google updated its search algorithm in a major way during 2010. You’ve probably noticed how search results begin to appear before you even finish writing your query

Broadly speaking, the speed at which your website loads is taken into account. Bloated code, obsolescent styles of scripting, innumerable widgets on the page (including the Facebook Like button), all these can slow down the speed at which your website appears on the screen. Google is looking for clean code, and fast download times.

Meta tags are back in fashion. Page titles are essential and meta descriptions should truthfully reflect the content of the page. Headings should contain keywords or keyword phrases.

Content should be fresh and unique. Which is why it’s extremely useful to update your blog with company news and information at least once a week. (a rule that I admit I’m not very good at keeping myself!)

The volume of search queries for the type of product or service you are offering will influence Google’s view of your website’s status in the scheme of things.

Make sure that you have Google Analytics code installed on your website and that you understand what the Google Analytics’ reports are telling you about what your website visitors do while they’re visiting. It’s free! So why not.

Copy writing

There’s a skill to writing good copy for the web: short, succinct sentences in which every word counts, bullet points and no more than around 250 words on a page. Those words must incorporate the search terms that people use to find the product or service that you’re selling.

Don’t try to stuff keywords into your copy. Google, Bing and Yahoo!, the major search engines, recognise that as spamming. Instead, optimise the copy on each page for no more than two to three different keywords or phrases.

Despite all the changes and fashions that have happened to search engine optimisation since the web became so dominant in our lives, good writing that provides clear information and help is the web’s biggest asset. And that will reflect in how Google ranks your site.

Use Google webmaster tools to find out how Google sees you, who else links to your website and to tell Google about your website.

Doing it all yourself?

Many small traders want the ability to alter and add to their websites themselves. You’ve no doubt heard of WordPress, which is used on so many small websites nowadays.

Contrary to what a lot of people think, WordPress is not a generic website building tool. It is blogging software with some content management service capability. You will probably still need a designer to get the installation up and running and tweaked to your satisfaction, which includes building the final design.

Its biggest advantage is in the wealth of free support provided by people all over the globe. People design themes for free and plugins for free.

One of the best plugins that I’ve seen for SEO comes from Yoast. When you add a new post, the Yoast SEO plugin gives you the opportunity to add meta descriptions, keywords and to write snippets that will show up in search results.

I’ve just created a WordPress installation for a local client who is overwhelmed that at last she can add information to her website without having to ask the web designer first. She’s finding the concept of SEO a bit foreign but is learning fast. Naturally, we’ve installed Yoast.

See Helen Burrell, beautiful jewellery to treasure for ever.

Jun 28 2010

Are SEO services worth your money?

* I am not sure that there are definitive answers. Would you be thinking of a specific area of SEO?

Much of what I consider to be SEO involves the underlying code of a website. As a freelance website designer, I have made a point of following best practice not only for SEO but also for accessibility. I’ve become wary of people who ask me ‘just to take a quick look’ at their websites because I can pick up on all sorts of things that need amending, yet I’m often left with the question, What are these people trying to sell, and why? And why should I buy from them?

When looking for a product myself, I rarely click on advertising and if I do, I don’t necessarily buy from the company that advertised. Invariably I buy either from a company listed on the first page of organic results or a company with which I’m already signed up. I read reviews of products. If I’ve had good service, I return to buy again. I don’t necessarily search the web once more for a new supplier.

I am influenced by the copy on a website and in asking your question, perhaps you may be thinking more particularly of the work involved in keyword analysis and incorporating this into the written copy.

Has ‘impartial’ research been done on how successful this is at attracting potential customers? Are there industry indicators on RoI? eConsultancy is one such company. You’ll need to pay for the market reports.

You’re more likely to show up higher on Google if you rejuvenate your website with new items and copy. Websites can’t remain static and expect to retain high positions in search results.

Whether SEO is worth the money could be a variant on ‘How long is a piece of string?’ To do a thorough job on a variety of SEO tasks requires somebody’s time. That somebody should be someone who knows what they’re doing and understands the way the net is moving. The SEO professional should also understand the need to liaise with the website designer. Is the business owner willing to pay the price for that knowledge, the liaison and the time required?

You can do SEO yourself, which is why eBusiness Club puts on seminars for business people. But how much time and effort are you prepared to devote to the task? Would you be better off outsourcing the work? Do you use analytics programs to measure response rates to structural and content changes in your website? How well do you understand the analytics? The seminars are probably better suited to familiarising business people with what they should expect from a SEO practitioner.

As a business owner, are you quite clear about your Call to Action and your USP? Are you prepared to continually oversee your web presence?

The goalposts are moving constantly on the web. Analysis shows that Facebook now accounts for more website traffic than Google and that social networks and forums have overtaken search engine traffic in UK this year. The implication is that many b2c companies need to have a Facebook presence in order to make contact with clients. And companies need to be alert to what is being said about them on on social networks. Customers may not be finding you via Google because they ask other people on Facebook about the best product, the best holiday, the best airline, the best car hire company, instead.

Watch out for SEO companies offering social media management.

* Sarah Whitticase posed this question on the LinkedIn Group, Business Scene – East Midlands – How visible are you?. This post is the text of my reply.

Jun 24 2010

Clubs Must Use Social Media

Professionally, I am very interested in how people and groups communicate. I’m mystified that there is so much sensible advice in the public arena about how to communicate information, that gets ignored.

As VPPR of my Toastmasters’ group, East Midlands Speakers Club, I need to know whether members think that they are getting too much or too little information and how they prefer to receive it.

I used the final project in my Advanced Manual on Technical Presentations, Enhancing a Technical Talk with the Internet, to carry out a small survey with the help of club members, of what are their communications’ preferences.

Since I am aware of the phenomenal increase in use of social networking, I also wanted to convey to my audience the urgency of the need to embrace social media. Many other toastmasters’ clubs use a variety of methods on the web to self-publicise and to promote toastmasters, blogs, twitter, facebook, LinkedIn, and so on. Ours does not, yet. Although we do have a Facebook group.

It isn’t enough now, just to have a website. Have you noticed the Facebook Like buttons and the Tweetmeme on these pages?

I had a high response rate from my colleagues, for which I am extremely grateful. Thank you, all of you.

I’m also grateful for the free use of Surveymonkey to organise my survey, Slideshare for hosting the slideshow presentation, and for hosting the soundtrack.

The objectives of the project required that I email a link to the internet for club members to follow, make a presentation using PowerPoint or Keynote, backed up by a flipchart if necessary, and to follow up the presentation with a summary.

Here is that follow-up summary, conveyed in a slide presentation and accompanying, separate soundtrack. The first slides show the results of the survey. Successive slides present data showing the incredible rise in use of social media. Finally, the presentation includes links which readers can follow to toastmasters’ groups on Facebook and LinkedIn.

I thoroughly recommend watching the YouTube video linked at the end of the presentation. Four minutes long, it shows eye-widening statistics on the shift in communications preferences. The video is based on Erik Qualman’s book, Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business. Did you know that some universities have stopped issuing email addresses to students because these young people just won’t use email? Instead, they’re using ereaders, iPads and tablet computers. How many people are using their mobile phones to surf the net to stay in touch with friends?

Unless we stay abreast of this revolution, we may find that it will prove difficult, if not impossible, in the future to recruit new members.

You will need to click on both the slideshow and the soundtrack to start them off, and manually forward to the next slide. The soundtrack will prompt you to move on. You can pause the slideshow if you need to.

The links on the slides will take you to toastmasters’ groups on Facebook and LinkedIn. The link to YouTube will open Social Media Revolution 2.

This presentation concluded my bid for the Toastmasters’ Advanced Communicator Bronze award, which has contributed to East Midlands Speakers President’s Distinguished Club Award this year.

Apr 09 2010

Coeliac disease and the life-long gluten-free diet

One of the manuals that I’m doing for my Advanced Communicator Bronze Toastmasters International award is on Technical Presentations.

Project 3 requires the speaker to present technical information to a non-technical audience using a PowerPoint Presentation and to accept questions during the presentation.

This seemed a marvellous opportunity to talk about a subject very dear to my heart – Coeliac Disease. When I was diagnosed in 1987, weighing just 47kgs, I was gravely ill. My GP hadn’t recognised what was wrong with me but did get me rushed to hospital when he realised just how anaemic I was. Even after diagnosis, he found it difficult to comprehend that an alimentary disorder could be due to an autoimmune response and not be an allergic reaction.

There’s only one treatment for coeliac disease, a life-long gluten-free diet, which requires considerable self-discipline and understanding of food composition. It hasn’t been so very hard for me, because I was so very ill when diagnosed and I don’t want to go back there again. Other people may feel subliminally ill with the condition and then resent the treatment that is prescribed. Yet others see danger in all foods because they don’t have the necessary understanding of what is, or is not, gluten-free. This isn’t helped by manufacturers changing at intervals the constituents of the food that they process and manufacture. A gluten-free food one year is not necessarily gluten-free the next.

I realised that I had made a big impression with my presentation, so I thought I would try to extend it to a wider audience online. I transferred the file to Slideshare and recorded an accompanying dialogue which I had hoped to attach to the online presentation. It didn’t work, possibly because the sound file was just too large.

Undeterred, I am reproducing both the slideshare presentation and the podcast below. Start the podcast recording which will tell you when to click through the slides. You’re already on slide 1.

The aim is to show why coeliacs must avoid gluten found in wheat, rye and barley and what foods are gluten-free.

Click the arrow on the display below to start the podcast (audio track).

The slideshow below displays Slide 1. Click the arrow to move to Slide 2. The podcast will tell you when to move on to the next slide.
Apr 09 2010

Panto time at Toastmasters

Toastmasters has been keeping me busy. I am now Vice-President of Public Relations for East Midlands Speakers Club as well as putting in the last effort to complete my Advanced Communicators Bronze award by the end of June.

East Midlands Speakers met Spa Speakers in Wellesbourne, Warwickshire, on 23rd January, yes, that long ago, for our second panto party.

Freed from the restraints of imposing a Toastmasters’ moral on the story, I let my imagination rove from the idea I had had back in 2008 after Ollie performed the stooge in his wet suit. I was struck by the image of Ursula Andress emerging from the tropical waters of the Caribbean. Thus Ollie became a focal point in my script as James Bond, though this time wearing his dinner suit.

I spent several evenings watching early James Bond films plus the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy for further inspiration. I mean, most everybody likes to dress up as a pirate.

This is how Treasure Island, but not as you know it, came to be written. I had a willing cast of ten, but not so willing that they were prepared to learn all their lines in time for performance. The Dame (John) wore an outrageous costume, and Pussy Galore (Roma) appeared with legs.

We even opened with a dance to Thriller, thanks to choreography from Jeannette and Judy.

Rather than my attempting to describe any more, watch the videos. The performance is in two parts to comply with YouTube’s limit of 10 minutes per video. Watch for Yvonne’s cameo performance as Calypso and the group song at the end.

Enjoy! We laughed our socks off.

Feb 12 2010

Google Buzz and privacy settings

Google knows heaps about me. How come? Because I use my Google account generously.

Not only have I a Google mail account, I upload photos to Picasa, I monitor news and follow blogs in Google Reader, I use Google’s calendar and I use Google Analytics to track usage of my websites as well as Google Adwords to serve up advertising.

I have a Google blogspot and I’ve told Google about my accounts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and LinkedIn.

So Google serves me advertising that it thinks I want to see. Simply by monitoring my behaviour, Google is building up a picture of my behaviour and tastes. It’s not personal mind, or is it?

Google has provided a dashboard where you can find out which of its web services it is using to ‘watch’ you.

I recommend watching the third installment of BBC 2’s The Virtual Revolution, in which Dr Aleks Krotowski looks at how Google’s data collection impacts on our notions of privacy and personal space. It airs on BBC 2 on Saturday 13th February 2010 and will be available on iPlayer for the following week.

Enter Google Buzz. This service suddenly appeared as an extra item in my Google mail account yesterday morning and I immediately joined the throng. It strikes me at first glance as a cross between Google Wave and Google Reader. There was a flurry of activity, I followed a few people, and then the hype seemed to die down. It would spell the end of FriendFeed assuming that everyone who used FriendFeed had a Google account.

Imagine my horror when I saw a tweet later in the day saying that Buzz had a huge privacy flaw. By default Buzz lists your followers as the people you email or chat with most on Google Mail and Google Chat.

In my case, that wasn’t too bad because I use my Google Mail account to receive rather than send email, and I never use Chat. But it might impact on you.

Here’s the article that gives the low-down. Be sure to follow this slideshow link to learn how to edit your Google Profile accordingly.

Nov 03 2009

Humour and audiences: learning from the Glasgow contest

Beginning of my winning humorous speech at Area 39 contest, Solihull, 20th September 2009, entitled Supporting the Masses

I didn’t win the Toastmasters’ Division E Humorous Speech contest in Glasgow. I wasn’t even placed. But I had a great time.

Several members of the audience approached me after my speech to tell me specifically how much they had enjoyed it.

I learnt that you have to be aware of the tastes and outlook of your audience. What’s funny in front of one group of people, doesn’t go down so well in front of another. Although my audience laughed at the jokes, they didn’t laugh very much at the linking story.

And the three ‘placed’ speakers all used movement across the speaking area, albeit not as frenetically as Michael McIntyre in his stand-up routines! Since I’m still in rehabilitation mode, I found it difficult to move freely.

I have to admit that I didn’t feel the connection with the audience that I’ve been used to. Perhaps I’d overdone the rehearsal, so that what came out seemed too well planned.

I think there is a difficulty with the concept of the contest. Toastmaster speeches are normally evaluated. In contests, they are merely judged. The speaker has no way of knowing exactly how the presentation could be improved.

Some Toastmaster clubs emphasize competition over evaluation, as I discovered on my visit to Toastmasters of Paris in June.

Success in competitions certainly raises the profile of the club, let alone the individual winning speaker. However, the chances are that the same speaker is always going to win every contest. I gather that anyone who wins the annual TI International Contest may not enter Toastmaster contests any more. He (it is usually a he) will not normally mind that when he finds himself in demand on the international speaking circuit.

Still, there has been no time to brood. I’ve spent the weekend singing the Mozart Requiem with Leicester’s Tudor Choir. The loveliest concert was in St Andrew’s Church, Whissendine, Rutland. A most atmospheric stone church with a long history. The concerts raised over £1,000 for HOPE, Leicester’s local cancer charity.

Oh,and I’ve now got my Competent Leader (CL) award from Toastmasters too.

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