Book Cases

For the last couple of hours I've been working in my girlfriend's dad's study. Those of you who know him will know that I'm either in a lot of trouble; or he's overseas... ..Don't worry it's the latter!

His study features comfortable leather chairs, some persian rugs, a sturdy wooden desk with leather insets, and critically, book cases.

The book cases are filled to the brim with hundreds of books on his favourite topics: classic cars and history. A History of Motor Racing is straddled by The Ferrari Story and Lancia, while Britain at War props up various Tom Clancy volumes.

Sitting here, the realisation sets in that it's fairly unlikely that my study will ever contain book cases. Everything I read these days comes in the digital form. I browse web-pages on my MacBook, read magazines on my iPad, and books on the Kindle. All of the written words that I consume today exist merely as 1s and 0s.

Pulling out a few of the books, their bent spines show where the reader may have put the book down and paused for a while - perhaps to enjoy a holiday view. Coffee stains give hints of late night reading, and dog ears, of the times when the reader's eyes grew heavy and the following pages were left for another day.

Books tell more than just the story that is contained in their text.

It's really quite sad that I'll likely never have book cases in my study.

How I Almost Applied to Quirk

The Background

Towards the end of last year, I was finishing up my final exams at university and starting to look for opportunities in the working world. I had completed the usual applications to McKinsey and Bain, but had gotten the "Sorry, we only take candidates who make the Dean's List" response. So it was time to start looking for somewhere that put more emphasis on creativity and innovation over the ability to get full marks in a test.

I then came across Quirk Marketing Agency, who had done a couple of guest lectures for the eMarketing course at varsity. After further investigation, I realised that they've been responsible for some really great digital work and have an absolutely rockstar team (including the likes of Rob Stokes, Justin Spratt and Sarah Blake to name a few). I was totally sold and knew I had to work there!

The Application

I also knew that I'd have to do something unique and fun to get noticed by Quirk. So I hatched a plan...

I decided that my standard, boring CV would have to go and instead replaced it with The Quirk eDaily - a newspaper version of my CV.


I registered the domain name (unfortunately I've since let it expire) and setup some cool custom stats (click the "Click for More Button") to track visitors and the search queries that bought them to the page.

To demonstrate my knowledge of PPC, I then setup a PPC campaign that was triggered by Googling the name of anyone that worked at Quirk:

The stats on the site would then check the referer URL and show in the pie chart who was searching their name and clicking the advert (there's some test data in there now).

The Almost

I finished all of the work on the application on a Wednesday afternoon. All that was left was for me to hit the enable button on the PPC campaign and then get tweeting to any QuirkStar I could find on twitter. I decided to hold off until the following Monday - I was going away for the weekend and didn't want to miss anything while I was away.

But...The next day, I got a reply from my now boss asking whether I'd like to come through to chat to him about a position at Korbitec. I had met with him two weeks previously and although the interview had gone well, I hadn't thought anything was going to come of it. He wanted to meet on Monday.

The rest, as they say, is history. I went through to Korbitec on Monday and they offered me the super cool job that I have today!

Unfortunately it meant that all the hard work that I did on my Quirk eDaily application never saw the light of day... well, until today!


How the moon got me 15k visitors in 4 days

On Wednesday the 15th of June 2011 at 21:22:30 GMT+2 a lunar eclipse took place over the African sky. This eclipse led over 15 thousand unique visitors to click through to the website in just 4 days, and got the site mentioned on the SABC3 News and the front page of the Cape Argus.

How it all happened?

It all started with the video below, which got me thinking about the idea of selecting high volume, once-off or infrequent events, in order to identify low cost adwords which I could use to send users to a useful site that contained relevant information on the event, as well as some advertising for my company's product.

Converse Domaination from Ross Martin on Vimeo.

So I registered the domain name and rolled out a default Wordpress install. With the help of my boss, we put together some interesting content and images that helped to explain the lunar eclipse to the layman. Lastly, I added some social sharing buttons (Facebook, Twitter, and G+) and switched out the default Wordpress comments in favour of the Facebook comments plugin.

With the eclipse taking place on Wednesday the 15th of June, we began the week with just over a thousand unique visitors on Monday. On Tuesday, this more than doubled to just under four thousand visitors.

On the day of the eclipse, Wednesday, the event started to get a huge amount of media attention and visitors on the site shot up. By the end of Wednesday, we had just under 10 000 unique visitors! Unfortunately my server took a dive a few hours before the eclipse, as the national television news channel, SABC3, used an image from our website with a reference to our URL!

Interestingly, Adwords reported that we received over 13 000 clicks on Wednesday. I suspect that around 3000 of the clicks that we missed were as a result of the server being down (eeek!). Also of note is the high click through rate and the resulting low Average CPC. For international visitors, 1USD = about 7 rand. So avg. CPC was sitting around 7 dollar cents!

What I learnt?

1. Social I think one of the biggest learnings for me was the impact of "social media", especially when used in the context of a trending topic. Lets look at the numbers.

  • Facebook: 473 likes & 43 comments.
  • Twitter: 44 tweets sent from the site & a number of mentions of the URL.
  • Google+: 8

The real power of social media, however, came from the comments section of the website. A number of readers added their views and thoughts to the site and this is ultimately the content that was quoted in the Cape Argus newspaper report. The press wanted to know how the average person felt about the eclipse and the social aspect of the site could provide that to them.

2. Relevance While I can't release the exact numbers on how well the PropIQ adverts performed on the website, I can say that it wasn't as successful as I had hoped it would be. We believed that a number of people visiting the lunar eclipse website would not know that one could buy a property valuation and that they would indirectly find out about it while browsing the site.

Unfortunately this didn't happen, teaching us that relevance is hugely important!

3. Scalability The website was setup on my entry level linode VPS, using a LAMP stack. To begin with, I wasn't expecting much traffic to the website so didn't do any planning on how I would scale the website if we were to get a sudden influx. On the Tuesday afternoon, after having received over 2000 visits on the day, I turned caching on after having noticed the server was taking some strain.

By Wednesday afternoon, however, the server was getting absolutely hammered, with Apache not able to handle all the concurrent connections. I reduced my KeepAliveTimout on apache to 2 seconds and this helped to free up some of the apache processes to serve more visitors.

Ultimately, my lack of scalability planning meant that the site was inaccessible for almost two hours on the day of the lunar eclipse - doh!

Next time: Nginx, enable MySQL Query Cache, and possibly (especially if it's just for a short once-off event) host on AWS with an elastic load balancer and Amazon's RDS for the database.


I had loads of fun with this little experiment and learnt a huge amount about social, relevance, and scalability.

The overall take-away for me, however, was the importance of being able to be nimble when it counts. I work in an environment where development is planned many months in advance and new projects go through rigorous testing before they're released. This is crucial when you're releasing to paying customers who rely on your service being stable and reliable.

When you're trying to latch on to  a hot trend or talking point, however, it's imperative that you are able to build fast and release soon - even if it means you run into a couple of hiccups when things start to take-off. and the effect on SEO

Google recently announced, a new initiative to create and support a common vocabulary for structured data markup on web pages. Structured markup has been around for a while, but the announcement sees Google (as well as Bing and Yahoo) making a commitment to a set of standards; and adding additional types of schema that can be used.

To take full advantage of all the attributes defined in, one would need to go through all the content on their site, marking up any information that has a corresponding schema attribute. For websites with large amounts of user submitted information, such as the South African accommodation website this would require a significant amount of time to add all the markup.

So what incentive is there for the website owner to go to all the effort?

Google says that they do not "use markup for ranking purposes at this time—but rich snippets can make your web pages appear more prominently in search results, so you may see an increase in traffic."

I think the latter part of the above point is important. Adding markup gives your page the potential to look a lot better on the search engine results page, which leads to more click-throughs to your page. A higher click-through-rate in turn seems to leads to a higher ranking in search engines.

I'll be keeping a keen eye on developments - this is one of those features that can potentially give early movers a big advantage.

Square - Watch this space

If you don't yet know who Square is:

Square is a revolutionary service that enables anyone to accept credit cards anywhere. Square offers an easy to use, free credit card reader that plugs into a phone or iPad.

Check out TechCrunch's article detailing Square's recent launch of the iPad register. I think this has potential to be seriously hot!

In a merchant’s card within the case, you can press a “use tab” button which allows the frequent customer to essentially put a purchase on their virtual tab with Square at the merchant. So once you press that button within two blocks of the merchant, you’ll be able to tell the cashier your name and your card will be charged on the merchant’s backend Square register. Because you are a repeat customer, Square already has your payment information. The purchaser will then receive a push notification when the merchant processes the payment.

Hole in the Wall

After a couple of months of living with a desk cluttered full of cables from the various electricity driven gadgets, that I am almost completely unable to live without; I decided that a clean up was in order. While I could have gone with the standard tidy up MO of unplugging everything, coiling the wires into neat loops, and finishing with an elastic band or paper clip; I decided to take the clean up to the next level.

Enter: The Hole in the Wall.

Instead of leaving the wires on the desk, I would cut a hole into the cupboard (ok, not quite a wall!) next to my desk and leave all the bulk of the wires in the cupboard, with only the essential ends sticking out to be plugged in when needed.

After some drilling, jig-sawing, some swearing, and using the wrong type of screwdriver...