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January 28, 2014

stateoftheunionThe State of the Union address has become one of the annual traditions that political geeks crave and everyone else tends to love or hate. Since the original “he shall from time to time” passage was written in Article II, Section 3, presidents have changed how they fulfill the constitutional requirement.

As it has with almost everything else, the web has transformed how the State of the Union is presented. Bringing the speech to radio (as Calvin Coolidge did in 1923) and television (Harry Truman, 1947) allowed the address to reach a larger audience, but today’s viewer can be more informed, thanks to the Internet.

  • The White House itself uses YouTube to present an enhanced version of the State of the Union, complete with graphs, statistics, and social elements alongside the prepared speech.
  • uses the address for a chance to do some live fact-checking of the speech on their site and on Twitter.
  • Pretty much every news source in the world will have live-blogging, live-tweeting, live-photoing, and whatever other information and analysis they can manage to find.

Even with its centuries-old roots and traditions, the State of the Union continues to change and evolve with the advent of the web. What could you do to give a refresh to your typical routine and allow your customers to be more informed?

Justin is one of the developers at Sephone. He's interested in user-driven design, social media, and web services. He also enjoys learning and exploring new ways for businesses and people to use the web.
January 8, 2014

This is one of a series of prediction posts for 2014 by our team members.

It seems like every year brings new advances and shifts in technology, some of which we’d never expect. Mobile devices and tablets have seen a huge surge in their market over the last few years, and we’ve seen an ever-growing expansion of social media as well. I think we’ll be imagining content in a different way by the end of 2014.

Using devices in new ways

There’s always a buzz about the next big device market. A few years ago, everyone started to talk about how tablets could change how we consume content. Lately the speculation has been about how we might use glasses, watches, or as Alan mentioned, televisions in new ways.

We talk a lot about responsive design, which lets you build a single site that adjusts its design based on what device you use to view it. In 2014 I believe we’ll really start to focus on moving beyond even responsive design to where we take a device’s strengths in mind. Maybe you’ll receive a custom notification on your phone if someone places an online order on your site. Maybe your watch will vibrate or beep if someone enters your store and you’re in the back room.

2014 may be the year where instead of thinking of the Internet as a bunch of HTML web pages and see it as the framework for new kinds of interaction and engagement.

Specialized social media

Facebook continues to be the social media king, but depending on who you believe, the site may be losing traction with younger users. Over the past couple of years we’ve seen growth in a number of social networks that specialize in one thing, such as Instagram and Pinterest. If Facebook users are worn out by Bitstrips, viral videos, and fake rumors, they may opt for networks where they can fine-tune who they choose as connections based on the type of content they want to see and share.

As the social pendulum swings back, there’s also a strong chance we’ll see services like Snapchat and Instagram Direct continue to rise in use. Controlling individual viewing seems to be a popular feature lately.

2014 promises to be an exciting year in tech. What do you think will be the hot tech gifts for the 2014 holiday season?

Justin is one of the developers at Sephone. He's interested in user-driven design, social media, and web services. He also enjoys learning and exploring new ways for businesses and people to use the web.
January 3, 2014

Now that we’ve reached another new year, it’s time for the latest installment in our State of the Browser series. In these posts we periodically look at what browsers visitors are using to visit some of our sites with the highest amount of traffic to get a snapshot of what’s popular with the general web community.

For the month of December we’ve picked three sites and averaged their browser usage. Here’s what we found:

Browser Usage Share

We found some continuing trends in the numbers from last month.

  • Internet Explorer usage overall continues to decline. In June 2008, Internet Explorer usage was at approximately 80%. Today it’s just over 30%. The number today is pretty evenly spread between the latest 4 versions of the browser, with 1.69% holding onto the ancient relic of IE 7. Internet Explorer 8, which is the most recent version available for Windows XP, may continue to decline as XP support ends in April.
  • At 22.8%, Chrome has become a close second to IE in terms of browser usage.
  • We split Safari up into mobile and desktop versions, and the mobile version continues to be popular at 13.7%.
  • While Android phones and tablets continue to be more popular, it seems like iOS users use the web more often, at least on the three sites we calculated. Total Android use (Android Browser + Chrome on mobile) is at 4.6% while Mobile Safari takes up 11.2% of the pie.

Here’s another interesting chart. One of every five visits on the three sites we used comes from a mobile device (phone or tablet):

 Traffic by Device Type

That number is one in four for many of our sites, and we even have sites where almost half of traffic comes from either a phone or tablet! If you’re not already thinking about mobile, now is the time.

Take a look at some of our other State of the Browser reports from the last few years.

Justin is one of the developers at Sephone. He's interested in user-driven design, social media, and web services. He also enjoys learning and exploring new ways for businesses and people to use the web.
December 26, 2013

GiftsIf you’re one of the millions who found a new piece of technology under the tree, you’ve probably been spending a lot of time tapping buttons and playing around with new apps. But whether this is a replacement gizmo or your first step into tablets, e-readers, and smartphones, adjusting to a new device can take some time. Luckily, there are a lot of resources available to help with your next steps.

Free stuff

What fun is a new device if you don’t personalize it with your own apps and games? Whether you found an Android or an iOS device under the tree, developers are offering some great deals to fill your bytes with cheer.

If you’re an iPhone or iPad user, check out Apple’s 12 Days of Gifts app. They’ll be giving away apps, music, and more for each of the twelve days following Christmas.

If Android is your flavor of choice, Google has a section of the Google Play store set up with some free suggestions to fill your new toy.

But you better hurry – some of these offers will be gone quicker than St. Nick!

Training & instruction

If you’re looking for some help to get the most out of your device, there are plenty of options. Check with libraries around your area to see if they’re holding any workshops for tablets and phones. They’ll also often hold classes to help you figure out how to use that brand new e-reader to buy books – or in some cases even borrow books from the library. (In Sephone’s backyard, for example, the Bangor Public Library, the Orono Public Library, and the Maine State Library all regularly have programs to help with e-gadgets.)

Many adult education programs also offer technology programs for really reasonable rates. It’s a great way to learn in a group setting about what your device can do.

No matter which device you’re tapping this season, don’t be afraid to learn more and use it to its fullest potential! Happy app-ing!

Justin is one of the developers at Sephone. He's interested in user-driven design, social media, and web services. He also enjoys learning and exploring new ways for businesses and people to use the web.
November 14, 2013

LoudspeakerIf you’re posting content online, there’s a good chance you want people to share and talk about it. Discussion lets people feel more engaged and connected – and it also gives people an incentive to talk about it with their friends.

Managing a good space for conversation can be a lot of work, though. Online communities can be intimidating, as you’ve probably seen if you’ve read comment sections on popular sites. If left unsupervised, troublemaker visitors can post irrelevant, hurtful, or polarizing comments, and a discussion area that’s run amok may actually discourage people from visiting your site. As you’re choosing how to build your comments area, keep the following tips in mind.

Have a clear set of rules

It’s important from the start to write a set of rules stating what you will allow and what you won’t. How do you want people to behave? What would you consider to be over the line for obscene words or other content? It’s important to make a version of these rules public so that visitors know what to expect, but you may keep a set of examples or specific offenses private to guide you. Don’t be afraid to say that a comment may be deleted (or even that a user may be blocked) if they don’t follow your rules.

Here’s a quick note on anonymous comments. There’s been a lot of discussion over the years about whether sites should allow users to comment anonymously or pseudonymously (with a username they choose). Some sites use Facebook to ensure that there is some level of verification for the people who comment. Personally, I think it doesn’t make much of a difference as long as you have guidelines for your discussion. Keep in mind that removing the ability to post without your real name may exclude people from your discussion. Some people can’t or won’t comment with their real name because of a number of reasons: they may not want people to see their Facebook posts or friends, they might have a company policy not to publicly comment on topics, or they might not want to share a personal story.

Use consistent, objective moderation

With a set of rules for the discussion area in hand, it’s important to enforce them if a visitor violates them. Hide or remove a comment for first-time offenders, and try to reach out to them if possible to make sure they understand the guidelines for the discussion. Use your comment system’s blocking mechanism for repeat offenders; a few bad eggs can spoil an area completely if left unchecked.

If there is more than one person moderating the area, make sure that every moderator understands the guidelines and acts consistently. Visitors may be frustrated if some comments are allowed while other similar ones are removed by moderators.

Encourage and reward good contributions

Comments are supposed to enhance a discussion, not stop or derail it. Many modern commenting systems have some way for users to vote a comment up or down; these ratings let everyone feel like they’re part of building the community, and they reward people who write thoughtful, valuable comments.

Systems like IntenseDebate take it one step further by calculating a person’s reputation – that is, the overall value of their posts over time. People with a history of quality comments rise to the top of the discussion. It’s a great way to encourage people to contribute often and write comments that people will find valuable.

Comment areas can be a great opportunity for your site to become more engaging with the people who visit. But make sure you’re staying on top of what people post, or it may drive people away!

Justin is one of the developers at Sephone. He's interested in user-driven design, social media, and web services. He also enjoys learning and exploring new ways for businesses and people to use the web.
October 24, 2013

Traffic JamYou’ve probably experienced it at some point: you go to a website, wait for it to appear, and then either get a blank white screen or an error message that politely tells you the site is not available. It’s frustrating, but you may not know that there are a few things that could be keeping you from accessing the site you want to see.

Even though there are more tools and techniques than ever to make sites more reliable, there are still occasional periods of downtime. And as more of the services we use every day move online, it’s easier to notice when a site you need isn’t available. Here are some of the most common reasons that may be causing your favorite site not to show.


Sometimes something goes wrong with how a site is built. This can be as simple as a mistyped piece of code, or it can be something entered incorrectly on a site’s DNS or domain name setup. More often than not, these kinds of errors happen when something’s changed on the site – and they’re usually fixed relatively quickly because someone’s right there to notice that something went wrong.


When you go to a website, the page address you type or choose – the request – actually bounces from computer to computer on its way to where the site lives (where it’s hosted). A single request may touch a dozen servers or more before it reaches its final destination. Even though there’s a pretty ingenious system to bounce around the world and back in the blink of an eye, sometimes there’s a problem along the path from your computer to the final server. (Maybe someone dug into the ground in the wrong spot and cut a cable, or maybe there’s a power outage where the server’s hosted.) If your request can’t get to the host server and back, you won’t be able to see the site.


Imagine you’re driving down a busy highway at rush hour and find yourself in a traffic jam. There are so many people trying to move at once that it overwhelms the road, and you’re not able to move. Website hosting computers are the same way; there’s a limit to the number of people a server can handle at once. If you’re trying to reach a news station’s site during a period of breaking news or if you’re trying to order a brand-new product in the first few minutes it’s released, you’re competing with hundreds or thousands of other visitors for the server’s time. (There are many ways to let more people access a site at once, but they take more time and money to develop and maintain. That’s why large sites often don’t have problems when they receive a lot of visitor traffic!)

Visitors, part II (the non-human kind)

Sometimes a site will receive a heavy burst of random traffic from all around the world, even if there aren’t a lot of real people visiting the site. This is called a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, and it’s often caused by thousands of compromised computers (something called a botnet) flooding a site with traffic. (Remember back in the days when viruses or malware would wipe your computer’s data? These days, a big goal of these bad kinds of software is to allow other people to control what the computer does – and in many cases, that’s trying to bring down a site with a lot of traffic to prevent real people from being able to access it.) These attacks are hard to stop because they’re so random; it’s difficult to tell which visits are from real people and which are from compromised machines.

If you’ve run into a roadblock while trying to access a site, sit back, grab some coffee, and wait a few minutes before you try again. If you’re feeling particularly helpful, send a bug report to the site owner – but be sure to include the right information!

Thanks to Keng Susumpow for sharing the photo in this post with a Creative Commons license!

Justin is one of the developers at Sephone. He's interested in user-driven design, social media, and web services. He also enjoys learning and exploring new ways for businesses and people to use the web.
October 10, 2013

It’s hard to believe that one of my favorite times of the year is back already. It’s peak fall foliage season here in Maine, and that means that leaf-peepers from around the region are cruising around the state in hopes of finding some great color.

Maine foliage around a bridgeFor photographers and other autumn lovers like me, it used to be really tough to figure out when the best times to head out to see the leaves changing. Luckily with a little creativity, the web makes it easy to figure out the best spots for your drive.

Starting points

In Maine the best starting point is the state’s official foliage site at They’ve made this into a great resource over the years with weekly reports and a photo gallery of shots submitted by seasonal shutterbugs.

Searching for local businesses is also useful; a lot of hotels, bed and breakfasts, and general destinations will post photos of the local scene on their site and Facebook page. You can find a host of places to visit around Maine from our friends at the Maine Tourism Association.

Search away!

If you really want up-t0-the-minute details on color around Maine, do a little searching. People love to share their photos and travels, and you can make use of what they’ve posted!

  • If you’re looking for photos, head to the recently-redesigned Flickr. Do a search for “maine foliage” and sort by date to see the latest photos from people around the world.
  • As we mentioned in a post a few years ago, Twitter’s search is not only a great way to find details about foliage, but you might also find a few fall-related deals or trip ideas in the process.
  • Instagram is also a great resource for colorful photos. Try a search for foliage to see what you find.

Don’t forget to share what you find, too! Happy travels.

Justin is one of the developers at Sephone. He's interested in user-driven design, social media, and web services. He also enjoys learning and exploring new ways for businesses and people to use the web.
September 5, 2013

Depending on your business, you may see customers face-to-face or talk with them over the phone every day. But a lot of companies don’t see social media in the same way; they’ll use their accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and other networks just to post information instead of interacting with their followers (and potential customers). Social networking is actually an amazing opportunity to build relationships with your customers.

When we work with a company on their social media presence, we try to apply the Golden Rule when it comes to posts, replies, and mentions from people around the web; in other words, if we were writing something about a company on social media, how would we want them to respond? As Alan mentioned in his post about responding to negative feedback, it’s important to (almost) always acknowledge a person when they mention your company, no matter if they’re saying something great or if they had a bad experience. Sometimes that’s as simple as liking their Facebook post as your page, or sending a quick tweet of “Thanks!” Sharing or retweeting posts can also be useful for people who obviously really like your company or brand; it shows that you’re listening and that you think their thoughts are important enough to share with others.

But remember that your response is often the first interaction a potential customer will have with your company. How can you leave the best first impression possible? Spend an extra minute to see if you can…

  • Give them (a little) more information than they need. If someone asks when you close, don’t just reply with a time; try something like, “We close at 8:00 tonight. If you can’t make it in, we’re open 11-8 all week and 11-4 on Saturday. Hope to see you!” If they said they liked your cookie dough ice cream, try to suggest something else they might like on their next visit: “We’re glad you liked it! Next time you might want to try Cookie Blast – it’s a new flavor this year that’s a cross between cookie dough and cookies & cream.” (I just made that up for this post, but it actually sounds really, really good right now.)
  • Make your reply relevant. Take a look at the profile and latest posts of the person who is talking with you. Can you use that information to make a better reply? Imagine you work at a Bar Harbor restaurant, and a man asks about where you’re located. If you notice that he’s from around Bar Harbor, you might use landmarks he may know: “We’re just off Route 3 next to the Village Green.” If you see that he’s been posting about how excited he is to be going on a cruise around New England, it might be a good idea to tailor your reply accordingly: “We’re on the road across from the town pier, two blocks up the hill on the right.” You might even include a link to a special page on your restaurant’s site geared to cruise ship visitors. (Of course, as with everything online, there are limits; keep in mind that it’s great to be helpful, but not great to be creepy.)

Social media is often your first interaction with a potential customer. Be fun and approachable, but also be empathetic when people have a problem. Whether they have a question, a concern, or a lot of praise, write back and leave them smiling!

Justin is one of the developers at Sephone. He's interested in user-driven design, social media, and web services. He also enjoys learning and exploring new ways for businesses and people to use the web.
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