Category: blogs

WordPress Pharma Hack and Updates

Hacks Honey Lemon Flavour

WordPress is a fantastic platform, with an excellent plugin mechanism and the most usable admin interface I have seen. I know and have used several others including Joomla, Zope, Drupal, and old stuff you may not have heard of. The problem with being popular though is that you are likely to be a victim of more attacks. There’s a strange pharmaceutical spam attack out there, and it got me too. I first found out about it when Google emailed my with a possible hacking notice. Links like /valium-high were appearing in the Google results for this site, yet when I tried the links they were giving me a 404 (page does not exist) result. The sneaky thing is that the hack is cloaked, the link /valium-high did in fact work but only if accessed via a search engine spider (or search bot / Googlebot). So Google sees a strange page selling valium, whereas regular visitors see a boring “page not found”. Spammers use these techniques to help their own strange pages rank in Google.

Using “Fetch as Googlebot” in Google webmaster tools allowed me to confirm the cloaking issue. To clean the hack, and simulate a search crawler without resorting to publishing tests live to my domain, I used my own server and tested using a search engine crawler simulator on a custom subdomain.

After a lot of searching, including various scripts like lookforbadguys and advice on checking the database I still couldn’t find the bad code. I gave up forensics and just reinstalled a clean version of WordPress (often the best recourse if you can’t find the hack quickly). It then took me a while to get a few other files I needed (my theme, images, custom scripts) from the old install and make sure they were working correctly.

Since I was making updates, I finally brought this WordPress site up to date with a few changes to CSS to take full advantage of screen real estate. This humble template was less than 800 pixels wide. I am now using a 960 pixel grid which is a de facto standard on the web given larger screen resolutions. I hope you find it a little easier to read.

Facebook Redesign and Change Aversion

Every time a major site with a big audience changes, there are always going to be detractors. Especially a site like Facebook. People spend a lot of time there, so interface changes are almost tantamount to moving stuff around in their lounge/den.

I think there are a number of issues with the new Facebook homepage. I’ve seen it before. It’s called feature creep. Lots of stuff all clamouring for your attention. Chat, realtime updates, top stories, the rest of the news, adverts, suggestions for friends, app updates, messages (FB-ized email) and notifications. Continue reading

Improving Ways to Read While Writing

flickr typewriter typo?!

I have been doing a bit of writing lately, and might even get an article or two published in an online technical publication. Which led me to thinking about the separation between technical stuff I write, often close to my profession, and the more personal items I write at other times. There are bits of photography and music in here too.

Many successful blogs stick to one subject, and treat it well. Some bloggers who want to scratch several itches therefore launch several blogs. I’ve always preferred one place to do everything, especially given that I don’t create anything like a useful volume of work to really get a following going anywhere in a given niche subject. I quite like the notion of an eclectic mix, and that has been my sub-heading ever since this blog was launched.

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Why I Won’t Read Your Blog

Expose Your Blog

I surf around quite a lot of blogs, thanks mainly to blog exchanges like Expose Your Blog which are like StumbleUpon but based only on blogs, and have the added bonus of gaining you reciprocal traffic. I used to surf on other exchanges too, but they are all losing traffic and are poorly maintained. Expose Your Blog is relatively new and quite a small but vibrant community of those enthusiasts of personal blogging that haven’t defected to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and others.

I thought I’d share a few reasons why I might be put off by blogs, and tune out if I land on them again. If you can think of anything else, I’d be pleased to hear it in the comments. Feel free to share your pet peeves too :).

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Installed W3 Total Cache

I have added a new plugin, W3 Total Cache, to improve performance on this blog. It seemed that pages were taking a bit too long to load according to Google webmaster tools. Solutions for caching nearly always make a difference, but you have to be careful about the parameters you set. However, with minimal adjustment to the defaults on this plugin, I now have a working configuration. There are plenty of options as you can see with the whole new “performance” panel in my WordPress admin screen.

Slow loading pages can really turn visitors off. Most surfers have a very low attention span – until they’re captivated by something of course. Improvements in page loading speed have been shown to improve user engagement and site traffic on sites as diverse as Amazon, Google and travel websites. Blogs are probably not as important, but that only means that tolerances are wider. Just because everyone has higher speed internet access, doesn’t mean they want to wait any more than a second for a page to start displaying. I’ve seen a few blogs on rotation that are a bit slower than that. Make sure your blog loads progressively if you can’t reduce overall page elements easily.

Troubleshooting WordPress Canonical

I have been wondering for a while why my jokes pages don’t list in search engines. They are WordPress pages which have some PHP in them to read from a separate database table containing my jokes. Every now and then I’ve tried to fix the problem, and I think I’ve finally found the issue. I’d like to explain how I didn’t solve the problem too, so you can see the troubleshooting steps I took.

First of all, I wondered if the content on the pages was too similar. I have a page that lists the categories for jokes, and for each link on that there is a page with a list of jokes in that category. I thought maybe the list of links wasn’t search engine friendly enough. So I added a bit of introductory text, and changed the <title> of each category list page to include the name of the category. I also added links to the next joke in the category on each joke page and changed the position of the breadcrumbs (e.g. Jokes by Category > True Stories jokes) to after the joke so the top of the page wouldn’t always contain very similar data. That didn’t work, but the pages are now a bit better to read and each joke in a category links to another joke which allows for better navigation. Perhaps people will read two or three jokes rather than being stuck in a dead end especially if they land on the site on a specific joke page.

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Five Years, Still Here

Thumbnail of old WordPress CMS back office look

The first proper post on this blog, discounting some emails about the Tour de France fantasy game which I converted to blog format, was Reading For Free back in late July 2005. I started the blog on WordPress and am still running it (back then it was version 1.2 and then 1.5). I created my own theme in September with help from Urban Giraffe and have modified it a bit since then, adding widget support (very late on that one, but didn’t need it before), tweets in the sidebar, and most recently a mobile version.

I have just upgraded to the latest version (3.1). The dashboard and back office looks cleaner, and has come a long way from the way it used to look. Sadly my post frequency average is only about 2 posts a month, which means my audience is still very limited. If you can’t post at least once a day, you’ll never build up readership – though once you have your readers, you might be able to diversify and post regularly but not necessarily to the same blog. I’ve spent five years hoping I could find more time to say more, still hoping.

Bringing it all Together

Twitter + Facebook + Netvibes = fruey 2009

On Facebook, you have a status which is limited to something along the lines of 140 characters, rather like a tweet in Twitter, which has a similar character limit. I often update this with a link, a story I have read in the press, or a mundane observation about how awful the weather is lately. Having already linked Facebook and Twitter with the official Twitter Facebook app, anything I post to Twitter (a “tweet”) is now published to my Facebook status and will also appear in the sidebar of this blog.

I spend most of my spare minutes on Netvibes and Facebook these days. Netvibes allows me to follow – in one place – the news (The Guardian, BBC News, New Scientist…), Geek sites (Slashdot, Metafilter…), French bloggers (Fred Cavazza, Stratégie Interactive…), podcasts (Guardian Science Weekly, BBC Material World), comments on my stuff (Flickr, Twitter, this blog…) and my own work projects (Basecamp RSS feed). From a total of 44 feeds loaded on there I may go off to different sites, or spot posts in blogs that I otherwise would never have the time to visit. Facebook allows me to keep in touch with friends – at least those that actualy use Facebook to publish and share things – and its value is in the ease with which you can react to news by commenting on things whether they be status updates, photos, videos or posted links.

While surfing around I used to find more time to post fully here, perhaps with an article on Flickr or something I had heard on a podcast. That being said it’s not like blog posts have ever come thick and fast.

So I’ve decided to activate a weekly tweet digest, which means there should be something going on here most weeks. Visitors may have noticed that updates have dried up in 2009, mainly because it’s just so hard to find time to write a good article. There’s stuff worth reading in the archives though, but it doesn’t always get the exposure it should. So now by combining the blog with the latest internet fads, I should be able to keep things up to date a bit more often just by having Twitter radiate out my comments to all the places people catch up with me :-).

p.s. Sorry for the awful diagram.