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Google recommends responsive Web Design for Smartphone Websites

Published on June 8, 2012
Tags: Mobile Application Development

We have long known that smartphones are becoming more important in terms of internet share. Plenty of people now use their smartphones to access the web on a regular basis, and over the past couple of years we have seen huge levels of growth in the amount of attention web designers put into developing mobile sites. This has had the impact of improving the mobile web experience for millions of people.

We have also known for a while about responsive web design, which is where the same HTML code is used for all web devices, but CSS technology is used to tell that HTML how to display according to the device and browser that is being used to display it.

Now we have had confirmation from Google that it recommends responsive web design when creating websites for use on smartphones. The announcement came in a blog post detailing the configurations that are supported by Google for smartphone websites. There are three configurations that are supported in total, but responsive web design is highlighted as ‘Google’s recommended configuration’.

The other two configurations that are supported by Google are a separate mobile and desktop site, and sites that utilise different HTML and CSS according to the device that a web user is using. In the blog post, a couple of benefits of using responsive web design are highlighted, including that it keeps all relevant content on the same URL. This means that it’s not only easier for readers to use, but it’s also easier for Google to assign indexing properties to the content.

Another listed benefit of responsive web design for smartphone sites is that it allows Google to ‘discover your content more efficiently as we wouldn’t need to crawl a page with the different Googlebot user agents to retrieve and index all the content.’ This is obviously something to take note of if you are interested in SEO as it makes your content easier to find and read – and therefore, hopefully, boost your chances of doing well in relevant search rankings.

It also means that rather than having to manage multiple sites separately (one for smartphones, one for desktops, one for tablets and so on), a responsive web design can be managed as one entity. This is beneficial because it means there is just one set of links to be maintained, which is not the case if you have separate sites for different devices. Take Facebook likes as an example. You could have a desktop website that has got 50 likes of a particular page. By contrast, the mobile version of your site might only have 5 likes for that page. Not only would the mobile site be less likely to rank well, but those 5 likes could well have decreased the number of likes that went to the desktop site. A responsive web design that works across platforms helps to standardise this rather than assigning different links and likes to different platforms.

As well as the SEO benefits, a high quality responsive site that works on smartphones just as well as it does on desktops makes things much better for web users. Research suggests that if users visit a bad mobile site, a majority of them will not recommend the company, which just goes to show how important this aspect of the market has become.

However, Google has also acknowledged that responsive web design is not always an option for mobile sites, which is why other configurations are also supported. In the case of using device-specific HTML, Google recommends that designers make use of the Vary HTTP header. This is to signal that content might change depending on the device used. For example, it can send a signal that a particular version of the site might need to be scanned using the mobile Googlebot.

As well as the summary blog post outlining the supported smartphone configurations, Google has also released a longer article entitled ‘Building smartphone-optimised websites’, which developers can utilise to find out more about the different configurations and see which option might be the most appropriate for their site.

Multiple configurations still play a part and they are all important, but responsive web design has received something of a boost from Google’s recommendation and it seems increasingly clear that it is the future of design.


By Chelsey Evans

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Update on Cookie Law Implementation: Implied Consent

Published on June 1, 2012
Tags: Web Site Law

We have now passed the deadline of May 26th 2012 for websites to comply with the new EU Cookie Laws and it is thought that many sites are still in some ways breaching the law. However, there have also been some interesting updates from the Information Commissioner’s Office, in charge of the law in the UK, giving us more information on how the law might work in practice.

Notably, there has been an update to the policy guidance from the ICO. The new guidance says that websites are now able to assume ‘implied consent’ from web users. This means that there is not necessarily any need for websites to display options for users to choose from, as we discussed in our post last week, but rather they can assume that if a user continues to make use of a website, they are happy for cookies to be used.

However, this does not mean that websites do not need to comply with other aspects of the new Cookie Law and so it still pays for organisations affected to read through the policy guidelines from the ICO to find out their obligations. For example, they might have to carry out an audit of the cookies they are currently using on their websites and perhaps update their own site information to make it clear to users the cookies that are in operation on the website.

Also, the updated ICO guidelines say that: “While explicit consent might allow for regulatory certainty and might be the most appropriate way to comply in some circumstances this does not mean that implied consent cannot be compliant.” This suggests that the implied consent principle is only applicable in some situations; if a website cookie is collecting sensitive personal data on a web user, it is likely that they will still need to obtain specific consent from them as we have discussed in previous blog posts.

Another key point from the updated guidelines is that the concept of implied consent cannot be used as a “euphemism for ‘doing nothing’.” Action still needs to be taken so that consent can be inferred from the web user. For example, you may have seen some websites with messages at the top of the page stating that they use cookies and that by using the site, web users consent to those cookies being used. In short, this means that no matter how a site goes about implementing the cookie policy, at least some action will need to be taken so that web users are aware of the cookies being used.

It is important to remember that the ICO has the power to levy fines on websites that do not comply with the Cookie Law, so even though the concept of implied consent might take some of the heat off web operators, this is not the only aspect of the law. A recent study from KPMG found that 95% of firms still hadn’t implemented the new law. However in practice, the ICO has said fines are unlikely to be levied. This is because sites are unlikely to cause a serious data protection breach. Non-compliant sites may still be expected to show the progress they have made towards implementation, though.

One slight worry with the implied consent concept is that it has been suggested this could lead to the UK battling its interpretation of the Cookie Law in European Courts. However, others have noted that many other European countries have yet to take the law seriously and that it could make the UK less attractive in terms of business. Also, some non-EU businesses could in theory get around the Cookie Law in a way that EU businesses cannot, which, it is suggested, could put European online retailers and other businesses at something of a disadvantage.

Either way, the Cookie Law is now in force in the UK and so it makes sense for businesses to do what they can to comply with the laws. The implied consent component has been described as being more business-friendly and it will hopefully make it easier for many sites – particularly those that don’t collect sensitive user data – to comply with the law.

You can download the updated ICO guidance on the Cookie Law with the addition of implied consent here.

By Chelsey Evans

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Cookie Law and Google Analytics

Published on May 25, 2012
Tags: Web Site Law

With only days to go until the EU Cookie Law comes into effect, many website operators are likely to be wondering just how the new law will affect their ability to, among other things, make use of services like Google Analytics. This is a real concern; since tracking cookies such as Google Analytics are not considered to be ‘essential’ to a website’s operation, consent is needed from users before they can be deployed.

This means that if a web user declines the cookies, website operators will no longer be able to track what they do on the site. If multiple users do this, the value of Google Analytics data will naturally go down and it will be harder to make use of it as a resource. This is something that could affect a huge proportion of websites – it is thought that of the top 10,000 websites, 57% make use of Google Analytics. Many more use similar alternatives such as Statcounter.

We’re going to focus on Google Analytics in this post since that is the major player when it comes to this sort of software, but similar issues are likely to apply to Statcounter and other analytics alternatives.

Currently, Google Analytics automatically sets four cookies. There is also an optional fifth cookie that gives website owners the option to share website traffic information with Google. There is something called a first party cookie that is set by Google Analytics that means if you utilise it on your website, you will only need to gain user consent once before it can be used (in contrast to ‘third party’ cookies that require consent each time they are used).

If you have the fifth optional cookie enabled that passes information back to Google, this will also need to be made clear on your website so that users can see who you are passing information to and what the purpose of this is. The Information Commissioners Office makes the suggestion of having text in a header or footer on your website to highlight the cookies and what they are used for. Google Analytics says that website information they receive is typically used for ‘benchmarking’ performance of sites. This is the sort of thing that will also need consent from users.

From all of this, it is quite easy to see the scale of the impact that the Cookie Law could have on tools such as Google Analytics. However, it is thought that these sorts of cookies are considered to be low priority by the ICO. Their guidance states that ‘provided clear information is given about their activities we are unlikely to prioritise first-party cookies used only for analytical purposes in any consideration of regulatory action’.

Also, the Government’s Digital Service has acknowledged just how vital analytics are to government websites and that cookies are currently the most effective method for this. They say that the usage of these cookies tends to be controlled by a ‘first party’ and that they are minimally intrusive to users. This, plus the information from the ICO, suggests that as long as information about analytics cookies is made clear and that they are operated solely by first parties, compliance with the Cookie Law should not be too difficult. However, even though this sort of cookie might not be the highest of priorities, to not comply is still to break the law and so it’s an issue that needs to be taken seriously.

At this point in time, it isn’t entirely clear what the solution will be for analytics cookies requiring consent from users. Their usefulness has been admitted, but compliance is still important and so it isn’t inconceivable that the value of analytics data will be affected by users opting out of the cookies. Solutions could potentially come from a modification to the code used by Google Analytics, a browser-based solution or updated privacy policies, for example.

There are also a handful of non-cookie based analytics tools available. We’re currently testing one and will advise shortly on the results, but so far we’re seeing similar results coming back to Google Analytics – the downside, though, is that it’s a fee-based service.

The ICO blog has stated that there will be 'no knee-jerk formal enforcement action’ taken against sites that are taking steps to comply with the Cookie Law but who are not yet quite compliant, so there isn’t too much need to panic at this stage if you are still sorting out your compliance procedure.

However, only time will tell what the impact of the Cookie Law is on analytics results but for now it seems that the safest course of action is to do what you need to in order to comply with the law, make sure that your processes and policies are clearly defined and that users are made aware if you are using analytics cookies – and that a decent solution is found some time soon so that Analytics remains a useful, valuable resource for anyone who uses it.

Should you need any advice on implementing compliance with the new regulations, please contact us for further information and our Cookie Consent Service.

By Chelsey Evans

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The EU Cookie Law: What You Need to Know

Published on May 18, 2012
Tags: Web Site Law, Web Design London

They’re technically known as the Privacy and Electronic Communication Regulations, but you might know them as the EU Cookie Law. This is the new directive that comes into effect on 26th May 2012 and that requires websites to gain the consent of users when they want to run most cookies on that website.

The vast majority of websites currently use cookies and, as it stands, many of them are breaking the law as most websites don’t ask for users’ consent before utilising the cookies. There are different types of cookie though, and some of them are exempt from compliance with the Cookie Law. Generally speaking, those cookies that are exempt are the ones that are essential to the operation of a website. For example, if you have to log in to a website to use its service, a cookie will be needed to remember that or else the service will not work.

However, even though some cookies might be used for operational purposes, they will still require websites to get consent from users before using them. For instance, this could be the case for cookies that remember a user’s preferences for that site. Other cookies considered to be ‘non-essential’ will also need consent before they can be utilised on a website. Notably, tracking cookies (such as those used by service like Google Analytics or Statcounter) will require permission from users, as will advertising cookies.

The Information Commissioners Office, which is responsible for the Cookie Law in the UK, has offered some suggestions as to how websites can make sure they are compliant with the new law. These include getting users to agree to cookies when they accept website terms and conditions, obtain consent when users choose certain settings, obtain consent when users utilise certain features, or utilise tools such as headers or pop-ups in order to gain consent.

For an example of how consent can be gained from users, pay a quick visit to the ICO website. Across the top of the screen you will see a header that requires you to tick a box that states ‘I accept cookies from this site’. It appears that this is a one-time thing. Once you have accepted the cookies from the ICO website, if you then leave the site and come back, it doesn’t ask you again to accept the cookies.

Guidance from the ICO suggests that the person who is responsible for setting a particular cookie should be responsible for the compliance of that cookie with the new law. For instance, if a third party advertiser were to place an ad on our website, they would be responsible for ensuring it complied with the law. However, if we were to use Google Analytics cookies to track our site statistics, we would be responsible for those cookies. The difficulty arises when a third party, such as an advertiser, doesn’t actually have a means of obtaining consent because the website is not theirs. This means that in practice it is much likely to be easier for the website owner to take responsibility for obtaining consent for all relevant cookies.

There is therefore likely to be a need for website owners/operators to liaise with any third parties in order to find out the exact nature of the cookies placed on a particular site since an owner might not always be entirely aware of this.

There are clearly quite a few ways in which a website could choose to obtain consent from users for their cookies, but no matter which method is chosen, the most important thing is that users are given an informed and clear choice. It is important to note that this might also mean that websites have to update their terms and conditions or privacy policies in order to ensure they comply with the new Cookie Law and so that users can read more about the kind of cookies that are used on a particular website.

As it stands, the majority of websites are thought to still be in violation of the Cookie Law, with many holding on to see how other websites (such as key government sites) deal with the new regulations. However, the law is due to come into effect very soon, and so if websites have yet to take action to comply with the directive, they would be wise to start forming a strategy now so that they do not fall foul of the ICO and find themselves in trouble.

Next time, we’ll be taking a look at how the Cookie Law affects tracking cookies such as Google Analytics. For now, if you want to find out more about the Cookie Law and different types of cookies and how they will be affected, the International Chamber of Commerce has produced a useful guide.

By Chelsey Evans

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Participation Choice: Are People More Engaged with the Web Now?

Published on May 11, 2012
Tags: Usability

A question that is often discussed by web designers and others working in industries connected to the internet is: how engaged are web users? We naturally all want web users to be inspired by and make use of the sites that we create - in many cases, we want them to actively participate on websites, whether it is joining in discussions, sharing photos and other material, or making a purchase from a business.

However, it is hard to get away from the fact that many people simply view the internet rather than taking part in it. This, though, might be starting to change. The BBC recently conducted some in-depth research into how active the UK online population is, and they came up with some interesting results.

One of the headline results that this study came up with was that the ‘1/9/90’ rule does not have as much relevance on the internet as it once did. This is the rule that suggests 1% of people created web content, 9% engage with that content in some way (such as by editing or adding to it), while the other 90% are what are often referred to as ‘lurkers’. By contrast, the BBC study mentioned above found that 77% of the UK population now participate in some way on the internet.

A big reason for this, it is suggested, is because online participation is now easier than it has been in the past. Just think about how easy it is, for example, to share content with friends on Facebook or Twitter, or to comment on an online discussion or newspaper article. Some people are clearly still in the ‘lurker’ category, though. One interesting finding in relation to this group is that many of them are considered to be early adopters – they know how to get involved on the internet, but they simply choose not to.

As a result of these findings, the BBC has developed something called the Participation Choice, which is a model that seeks to explain digital participation. It includes different levels of participation from ‘passive’ to ‘intense’. There is evidently a spectrum of internet involvement, with some people being much more involved than others – but the main conclusion of this study is that people are more involved on the internet than ever before and that increasing numbers of people are choosing to participate online.

However, there is a flip side to this and not everyone agrees that the study discussed above has got it right. One response to the study suggests that the 1/9/90 rule was never supposed to be representative of the entire internet. Rather, it is to do with the expectations of behaviour ‘inside any given online community or service’.

Part of this argument is to do with the fact that there are lots of different web platforms a user could choose to be active on, yet they might only engage with one or two. For example, just because someone is part of the ‘1%’ creating content on Twitter, they might fall into the ‘lurker’ category when it comes to lots of other websites such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+. The internet, this argument suggests, is a huge place and everyone is likely to be taking part somewhere, but not taking part in many other places. Therefore the ‘1%’ rule still holds sway when we are talking about particular sites or services, because for everyone who is participating, there will still be plenty more lurkers even if those lurkers are taking part on other sites elsewhere on the web.

The debate arises when you are trying to determine whether this means a particular user is participating or passive on balance. It’s not difficult to see the points that both sides of the debate are making, and they are both in some way right. However, to get too bogged down in ‘internet rules’ of participation could be to miss the point a little bit, taking our focus away from what matters. We could argue that even though someone isn’t participating on a website, it doesn’t mean that they’re not engaged or interested in what is happening there. The job for web designers and others is to work out which method works best for the individual sites they are creating and to make sure those sites offer a great user experience – no matter how those users eventually choose to get involved.

By Chelsey Evans

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