Worth a Look

Driving traffic to the OneStop homepage is near the top of our priority list. One of the ways we do this is by offering what we consider to be the best news at Sun.

Basically we try and stay abreast of everything Sun related, filter out the info that is not of interest to our audience, and publish the rest. We generally publish 3-6 items per day. The goal is to enable users to keep up with what’s really cool and relevant, at a glance.

As Robert and I are both info junkies, and stay connected most of the day, it’s very little burden to post timely and relevant information. Our sources include:

  1. ZapTXT. A free tool that sends hourly updates for RSS/ATOM feeds of interest. The cool part is that you can filter the feeds for a string, such as “Sun”. By watching feeds for The Register, eWeek, InfoWorld, CNET, ZDNet, and others we can catch all the late breaking stories.
  2. Google News Alerts with Search terms of Sun, Solaris, etc.
  3. “In Today’s News”. Sun PR publishes a daily news summary which is excellent.
  4. Sun internal aliases. Robert and I both subscribe to dozens of internal aliases. Oftentimes when people see an interesting article they’ll circulate it on an alias.

We try and add little fun to the mix by posting the Dilbert cartoons that we think are especially funny. The Dilbert items are consistently the most popular. We know this as we carefully track click throughs.

When Yahoo!News added javascript popup summaries I found it extremely useful, so we added the same functionality.

Integration with our Wiki

We’ve been struggling for some time with making OneStop more available for community editing. We’ve tried including a wiki section into each OneStop page, but found that mixing metaphors between html editing by one author, and wiki style editing by the community doesn’t work well.

We have a very popular companion site to OneStop called CEpedia, which is a wiki based on the mediawiki codebase. As we’d like to minimize the number of sites  where users look for information, having  two somewhat overlapping locations is undesirable.

We now offer our users the ability to host their content on CEpedia, with all the advantages of community editing in a wiki, but also participate fully in the OneStop framework. The OneStop framework offers:

  1. Search that works
  2. Link check support
  3. Page Status reports
  4. Presence on OneStop homepage and menus, including most popular, recently updated, etc.
  5. A-Z and browse
and most importantly, the OneStop brand. The OneStop brand means that someone is paying attention to the currency and quality of the content.

Have a Hacker or Two on the Team

We’ve never been much for heavy weight processes, in fact we were in perpetual beta mode far before it was fashionable.

We are pretty much the opposite of a traditional IT process  that includes analysis, specifications, design, implementation, test – and all that stuff.

When we see a need, or have a new requirement, we just do it. If it doesn’t work, we back it out. Fortunately we have few interdependencies, so the downside is small. It helps that we have a staging machine and 4 production mirrors worldwide. If we mess up the staging machine we have all the production instances still working.

We use the SAMP stack (Solaris, Apache, MySQL, Perl/PHP) for most everything we do. In concept, at least from the infrastructure point of view, our stuff is really simple. We have no real need for robust transactional support, identity management, or many enterprise features at all.

Hacking up a new report in Perl/PHP, adding new javascript functionality, or adding new tools is something we can generally turn around in hours, or at most a small number of days. The process is generally:

  1. Mike to Robert, or vice versa: “Seems like we should add this bit of functionality”.
  2. Robert to Mike: “Sounds good to me, why don’t you change some part of it. Let’s ask the authors if they like the idea”
  3. Authors to M&R: “That sounds useful”
  4. code, code for a few hours
  5. test on staging machine
  6. New functionality available

Content Recommendation Engine

Sun has lots of internal sources of information – which is really why OneStop exists in the first place. It’s the author’s responsibility to post the latest and greatest information about their product/technology/program to their OneStop page.

This can be somewhat daunting as new collateral and information is continually generated. Authors generally follow aliases and interest groups in their domain to keep up, but it’s still difficult.

To make life easier on our authors, on a weekly basis we run the content recommendation engine. This engine interrogates the top document repositories at Sun and grabs the titles of the documents that have been added or modified in the last week. It then submits these titles to the OneStop Search engine. (See the Search Needs to Work Post.) It makes note of the OneStop pages with the highest relevancy scores for each of these documents.

We do some slicing and dicing and a list of the new or updated documents that are relevant to each OneStop page is assembled. The OneStop page is then scanned, for each relevant document, to make sure the author hasn’t posted the new information already. A list of “documents to consider posting” is then emailed to each author.

Favorite Reports

We do a bunch of reporting on OneStop, both for the authors and for our small infrastructure team. (Robert and I) The reports have evolved over the years as we’ve done a lot of adding, changing, and discarding.

The four reports that Robert and I find most useful in keeping our fingers on the pulse are emailed to us daily. These are:

The Pages Updated in the Past 24 Hours report gives us a feel for how active the site is. On an average day ~25 pages are updated.

The Top Pages report shows us usage for the top 30 OneStop pages, including the home page. We’ll scan these pages for robustness, ensure search finds them properly, and make doubly sure they are well cared for. On an average day the home page will get 4000-5000 hits.

The Worth a Look Activity Report shows us the usage for our Worth a Look Section – which is really OneStop News. We post 2-6 items every day, usually articles in the press concerning Sun, sometimes fun stuff like Dilberts we think are especially funny. The report lets us know which articles people are clicking through on.

The Stale Pages Report is a trigger for us to personally engage with authors whose pages might have gotten old.

Search Needs to Work

By and large when a person utilizes the search box on your site they expect to quickly find what they need, not on the internet, not on the intranet, but on your site.

On OneStop we use Ultraseek. This is mostly because Sun has a site license, but it is a mature and very tunable search engine that delivers very good results on a per site basis.

We are very careful to ensure that if someone uses a phrase in search of a particular OneStop page that describes a product, technology, or program – that the right page will appear on the top of the search results list.

We have a few factors working to our advantage:

  1. There are less than a thousand OneStop pages. (A very bounded universe)
  2. We have control of the content and can add meta data.
  3. Ultraseek has many tuning parameters we can use to influence the results.

For example, each OneStop page is classified as active, static, or archived. We insert the meta tag

<meta name=status content=xxxx>

into each page as appropriate. We then tune the search engine to influence that results score as a function of this meta tag.

We give authors the capability to influence where their pages show on the search results list with the

<meta name=keywords content=xxxx>

tag. This ensures that a page will show up properly when, for example, an acronym or term that isn’t listed on the page – is listed in the <meta> tag.

Last but not least we do a lot of testing. We ask that each author search for their page(s) with multiple queries, and if they don’t see the desired behavior, we fix it.

Moderation and Ownership

Moderation – no not the drinking kind, and ownership, are key to OneStop’s success. When your name and picture are on a webpage that is scrutinized by hundreds, sometimes thousands of your peers, you are careful to get it right. It’s certainly a reflection of yourself.

We find that the best pages generally have one owner, though we do have pages with up to four. That person bears the unique responsibility for keeping the page up to date, and ensuring the content is accurate. That person also, of course, get the visibility and recognition of being the owner of that page.

Our challenge is enable users to more easily contribute to a page. We would like to take advantage of the  expertise in the community to a greater extent. Perhaps the future role of some OneStop authors is more of a moderator.

For  pages where we anticipate community contribution we will soon be offering an optional environment where editing is done in the wiki. More on this in a future post.

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

Have you ever been frustrated in a request for support or for help? Have you ever met with  “I’m too busy to respond to you right now”? Have you ever gotten the feeling that your time is considered less important than the person you are asking for assistance?

In an environment where the content is coming from volunteer authors, any of these responses is unfathomable.

We’ve made some mistakes with OneStop over the years. One of the mistakes was having too many cooks in the infrastructure team kitchen. At one point we had six people on the team, two full time. Any change to the environment, no matter how trivial got logged into a DB, clarified agreed to if necessary, then implemented in a batch. Response time for author requests such as new pages, author changes, etc. generally took 24 hours, and often as many as 48,

Our infrastructure team is now two people, part time. We’re both in front of our machines most of the day so we see the requests immediately. We consider it poor form if we can’t service requests within a couple hours, at least during the time one of us is online (5:30 AM – 9:00 PM PDT). [We really like the Sun work from home program!]

Not sure about you, but I sometimes have a short attention span. If I can get an immediate response from a support person on an issue I’m having that moment, that allows me to continue with my project – and not get distracted. Hence – productive!

We think the authors appreciate this level of responsiveness.