Archive for June, 2017

June 27, 2017

Rule of Thirds Breaker

I admit it, I’m not big on following the “rules” in photography. I shoot in continuous mode, and I ignore most framing rules like the rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds is a practice designed to help break the center-centric habit most beginner photographers have. Rather than place the subject in the dead center of the image, placing them off center (along the thirds grid line) usually creates a more dynamic image. Most rule of thirds advocates suggest having at least two focal points in the four grid line cross sections.

I support the principle, but like any rule it can be over done. Equally important to the placement of the subject is the overall background, and the overall look and feel of the image. In my opinion, it’s not worth adhering to any placement rule if it leaves a distracting background element, or forces you to crop out part of the scene that makes the image compelling.

Here’s an example from one of my favorite photos of Alexis. Original on top, with grid lines below.

The corner of her mouth touches a grid lines, but the focal points (the eyes) do not. In fact, the close eye is dead center in the image. Now watch what happens when I recrop so the back eye and lips touch the grid line cross section.

The framing of the face isn’t bad. Truth be told I probably should have gotten closer, and a tighter crop achieves the same effect. The problem is that darn bow. It’s cut off. It’s both distracting and detracting from the original image. The cropping gets substantially worse if I try and force the close, dominant eye to a cross section.

Here’s another example using one of my favorite photos of Nicole.

This one happens to correspond with the rule of thirds in that the tip of her middle finger touches the cross section of the grid lines. The other focal points, do not. The best recropping I was able to do puts both eyes in opposite cross sections and yields the following.

You lose the hunched over shoulder. Recropping to other focal points losses part of the hand. Both lessen the impact of the photo.

All this is to say while the rule itself isn’t inherently bad, not all photos work with the rule of thirds. Rules in photography, like rules in any art form, should be used as training tools. It’s useful to experiment with them, but strict adherence to the rule will be limiting and could cause you to miss the ideal shot.

At least that’s this photographer’s opinion.

I love to save money. I’ll sign up for loyalty cards, price compare, and track prices for months before making a purchase, even on relatively small ticket items. Usually it’s a thrill. Lately it’s been exhausting. The problem I’m having is there are just too many different ways to shave off a few dollars these days, it gets to be nearly impossible to calculate all the different possibilities to be sure I’m getting the absolute rock bottom prices. I have the kind of personality that gets really irritated at myself if I find out I overpaid for something, even by just a few dollars.

As an example I used to love Target’s Cartwheel app. Scan an item and you might get a coupon for that item, or a comparable item. For a while 20% or 30% off seemed to be the norm. What’s not to love? As it’s grown in popularity they’ve stopped putting up signs advertising some of the bigger deals. That means I have to remember to scan everything in my cart or I might miss a deal rather than just rely on the signs to warn me of deals I might miss. I’ve forgotten and discovered coupons I could have used after returning home from the shopping trip.

Another example is the Amazon lightening deals. In years past there were fewer deals, but the percentage off was more noticeable. Scrolling through the deals was manageable. These days I filter by just two or three categories and it still takes forever to go through them all and see if any are good for me. I’ve actually stopped looking at Lightening deals during Black Friday because they just weren’t worth it for me.

I’m finding deal hunting exhausting, and quite frankly time is something that is short supply these days and about to become even rarer. I know I talked about putting together an app that would automated the process of deal hunting. Considering the amount of time I waste already trying to find the best deal, and how irritated I get at myself when I don’t get the absolute best deal, it may not be a bad idea.

So far I’ve not found another app that does all I want. Apply coupons automatically? For the most part. Price compare between major retailers? Yes, but not all and not always reliably and with no easy way to specify customer specific coupons and loyalty rewards. Let you specify perfectly acceptable substitutes? Definitely not.

June 18, 2017

A Happy Break

Domingo and I always planned on taking the girls to Disneyland before school started. We were both in agreement that we didn’t want to take the kids out of school for vacations, and we prefer not to visit Disneyland in the summer when temperatures can easily climb past 100. Our plan was to go during the school year, when attendance was low and the temperature was mild.

Somehow it didn’t occur to me that our ideal time window was closing when I registered Nicole for Kindergarten. In fact, it wasn’t until early May, when someone on facebook posted pictures of their Disney trip, that I realized we hadn’t done any planning of our own! It was too late to avoid the summer attendance high, but at least we could still try and avoid the peek heat.

Ah well. Live and learn.

The girls enjoyed the trip immensely. We did a lot of preemtive research on where we’d like to eat, downloaded the app which gave wait times, and decided to wing the rest. That ended up being a very good thing. The first ride we went on, Finding Nemo, ended up being a little two intense for the kids. Alexis also struggled with the lines. The girls were content with just meeting princesses, which we did over and over and over! So many princesses. They both loved the King James Carousel which seemed to be the only ride with a consistently short line. Win! We were also able to attend the character breakfasts by simply showing up at the right time, which is great since making reservations with young kids is often tricky.

Some of the decisions that worked out well:

We booked an off site “Good neighbor” hotel within walking distance to the park. The monorail was down for repairs during our entire stay and the official Disneyland hotels were technically further! Our hotel ended up being close enough that we could watch fireworks and see Cinderella’s castle from the balcony. It was also right next to an IHOP and McDonalds, so we had some cheap, easy food options.

We rented a double stroller (City Mini double) through a third party, which was handy for the park, but man am I glad we decided not to purchase it when I was pregnant with Alexis. The stroller came in handy for all the Disney walking, but it was a beast to maneuver. I doubt we’d ever use it at home.

We opted for Photo Pass. I can be picky with my photos, but we did so many trips to see the princesses that the staff was able to get some Sarah-approved photos. I’ve also been really tired and not feeling well of late, so it was nice to take the pressure off and not feel like I needed to be on top of my photography game.

What we plan to do differently next time:

Attend during the school year, maybe during Spring break or on one of the three day weekends. We’re close enough that it’s feasible. Even though the temperature wasn’t that bad, all things considered, it felt hot and that was draining. Bad whether in Anaheim is clouds, which makes for better photos anyway.

May saw a 18.8% growth in users and a total revenue of $209.59, making it my most profitable month yet.

The month started out exceedingly strong. I was on track for a 40% increase in users, but midway through the month I had a huge set back. Within a period of 24 hours search result clicks dropped nearly 20%, which set my daily totals back to where they were nearly four weeks. By the end of the month things seemed to have settled at about a 13-14% loss from my early month peeks. Thus May is not only my most popular and most profitable month, but it’s the first month in a long time where user counts were lower at the end of the month than at the beginning.

After digging around it looks like I was on the wrong side of a google algorithm update. Or at least, the timing of the drop in performance exactly correlates with an update. Performance is down similarly across all apps. Statistically speaking, there is no one app disproportionately affected (or not affected). Click position is fluctuating a little bit, as is click through rate, but it doesn’t appear that my competitors are suddenly more competitive. Most of my apps have a competitor, but most competitors only compete on a single app, so if one was suddenly more competitive I wouldn’t expect a uniform drop the way I’ve been seeing.

So the main question is why am I suddenly getting less clicks? One theory I came across is that Google may be prioritizing AMP pages. Converting to AMP is something I considered, but since the majority of my apps use Javascript, it isn’t feasible, let alone practical. Another theory is that my site might be two slow. I got a couple alerts from Google Analytics that my top landing pages were significantly slower, however that appears to have occurred after the drop in traffic. None the less, site speed has been something I’ve been concerned with, so I spent the majority of the month focused on it and got overall load times down 23%.

I also decided to do some tricks that improve the appearance of speed, and thus user experience, even if they technically add a few extra miliseconds to the load time. For example, the Pregnancy By Week Calendar initially just used JavaScript to populate the calendar. The benefit of the JavaScript is that the user can change the imput (such as the due date) and the calendar updates without needing a page load. The drawback is that JavaScript didn’t execute until the DOM was ready, meaning the user saw an empty table for a few (possibly hundred) milliseconds. I’m now using PHP to initialize the table. Since there’s increased functionality in the PHP code, it takes slightly longer to execute, and slightly longer for the page load, but the user sees a populated calendar sooner. The main reason why I haven’t done this sooner is that it means I have PHP and Javascript code that effectively do the same thing, which introduces the potential for inconsistencies.

There are a few other places I can make similar updates.

I still need to work on my Time to First Byte (TTFB). Moz did an experiment that indicated TTFB was likely the speed criteria google was using in ranking. (I disagree with the experiments methodology, but TTFB does appear to be correlated with rank.) Moz recommends a TTFB of 500ms. My most popular page currently has a TTFB of 750ms!

Fortunately the most important factor in ranking is content, and by all metrics I have extremely strong content quality signals. I have a small bounce rate (2.5%), an average session duration of 2 seconds, and a large returning user rate (greater than 40%). This shows that, in general, when users discover my site they use my apps and come back.

The other good news is that while my search result clicks may not have fully recovered, my projections still show that I’m on track to hit the $1000/month goal by December. June is still going to be a bit of a question mark. A month of no growth is certainty possible. After the long run I’ve had, I feel due for an “average” month. Here’s hoping my efforts in speed start paying off.