Secrets of AirSafe.com: Key Technology
Trends and How They Are Used
Date: 28 July 2008; Length: 11:33
AirSafe.com creator Dr. Todd Curtis discusses key online technological innovations, including search engines, blogs, and subscription services, that have influenced how AirSafe.com changed over time to accommodate the needs of the audience.
Welcome to the Conversation at AirSafe.com, with your host Dr. Todd Curtis.
This is show #57 - Secrets of AirSafe.com: Key Technology Trends and How They Are Used
If you've been online for even a little while, then you know that the Internet is constantly changing. As your options change, so too does your relationship to the Internet. Usually the relationship goes something like this: first you may hear rumors about some new product or service that is just around the corner. Later on you either seek it out or you stumble across it and you try it out. If it gives you some benefits, you may use start to use it on a regular basis. If it doesn't do anything for you, you may stop using it, or maybe come back to it months or even years later.
Not everyone approaches these changes in the same way. Some, like high-speed access for the home, is so superior to the previous options that most people switch and never come back. For other things, you either love it and can't live without it, or you see no use for it and avoid it altogether. A couple of examples of this are instant messaging and text messaging. I find them useful only in very specific circumstances, while many people, especially children and young adults, are heavy users.
The number of people online is so large, and the number of things that people want to do online is so varied, that businesses that cater to the online audience can become very successful by targeting small segments of the population.
For AirSafe.com, the challenge is figuring out what audience to serve, and then deciding what technologies can be used to best reach that audience. The first step in that process is figuring out what kind of person AirSafe.com wants to serve. The site serves mostly as a source of news and information about aviation safety and security.
When the site first launched, the primary way information was exchanged online was by email or by web site. Back in 1996, that meant web sites consisting of words and pictures. Download times were so slow for most users that I kept the number of pictures on AirSafe.com to a minimum.
Because I had no permanent staff members ready to respond instantly 24 hours a day, I focused on using the web site as the primary tool for providing information, and relied on email for answering the occasional question from the audience or for communicating with the media.
I also used email to send out newsletters or announcements to interested audience members, especially after a fatal airline event. To do this, I subscribed to a service that allowed users to join an AirSafe.com mailing list. The service allowed me to keep track of the number of users, collect basic demographic information, and measure the audience response to specific mailings. If users wanted to join the list or get off the list, they could do it on their own and not have to contact anyone from AirSafe.com.
For several years, this combination of a web site and a mailing list was an acceptable situation since most of the early users were also focused on using web sites and email. The technological changes that were most important for AirSafe.com were not related to the site's content, but to how the audience found that content.
The online resource with the greatest impact was search engines. Making search engines useful for the AirSafe.com audience meant doing a number of things, most of them invisible to users, to ensure that the content would be listed by the major search engines, and to make that content show up at or near the top of the relevant search results.
This was a process started in the late 1990s, and it continues to evolve as search engine technology evolves. One measure I use for the effectiveness of this strategy is the following simple test: seeing if some part of the site shows up on the first page of search results for some relevant set of search terms. If it does, then I'll likely not make any changes to the site. If it doesn't, I may change several things about the site to improve search results. If you want to see how well the site ranks, go to your favorite search engine, type in words related to your favorite aspect of airline safety and security, and see what happens.
For the last several years, typing in the words "airline safety" brings up AirSafe.com as one of the top three results for most search engines. This kind of result happens for a range of issues, ensuring that AirSafe.com has a steady stream of visitors.
Changes to the Internet can be quite rapid, with some services or technologies going from obscurity to phenomenon in a matter of months. One example that had a significant impact on how the site operates is the iPod, though not in the way that you may suspect.
Apple's iPod is actually one part a collection of technologies that combines hardware, software, and marketing to encourage different kinds of users. For years, I only used the iTunes software on my computer and didnŐt bother to purchase an iPod. While I first used iTunes only to play music, over time I found that I could use it to manage all kinds of audio content.
Around 2004, I began to consider iPods as an option to distribute the content of AirSafe.com. Although airline passengers were clearly part of the AirSafe.com audience, one of the places where they could not access the site was on a plane. My thought was that I could produce audio programs that could be downloaded into either into an iPod or a laptop, and played in flight.
The technological hurdle that made it difficult was the problem of distributing it to potential users. While I could certainly create the programs and make them available on the site, I'd have to spend considerable time and energy making my audience aware of the programs and convincing them to make the effort to download them.
While I started the podcast series in late 2005, it took several months to figure out what the audience liked, how to expand the audience, and how to streamline the production process. Fortunately, the popularity of the iTunes software, and Apple's decision to allow podcasters to register their programs for free, solved many of my distribution problems.
The iTunes software is designed to allow users to easily subscribe to a podcast using the same online store used to download songs. When new episodes of a podcast are available, subscribers can have them downloaded through their iTunes software. This solved many of my distribution problems since it allowed anyone with iTunes on their computer to update the AirSafe.com podcast without visiting the site.
While Apple played a large part in creating a framework for presenting and downloading podcasts, it was only one of the factors that helped my podcast. The syndication technology that lets users subscribe to a podcast also allows users to subscribe to other types of content. Many sites, including AirSafe.com, have links that allow some programs, including the latest versions of Internet Explorer, Firefox, and other popular browsers, to link to new content on the site.
AirSafe.com incorporates two kinds of subscription technology for its podcast, one type that allows media players like iTunes to subscribe to the entire podcast, and another that allows users to download individual episodes from their browsers. By the middle of 2008, the AirSafe.com podcast had become a significant source of traffic, with an average of 30,000 downloads each month. Most, but not all, come about due to people who subscribe through iTunes or other software with subscription capability. Several thousand downloads also occur through YouTube and other video distribution options.
Speaking of online video, it was another technology that went from obscurity to huge popularity, but it took a while before I regularly used that technology for AirSafe.com.
Video has been available online for over ten years, but early on it was highly inconvenient to use because of the relatively slow connections most people had. Also, it was very difficult for the average person to create videos in a format that could be played online. A combination of cheaper high-speed access, portable digital cameras, video editing software for personal computers, portable video players, and video sharing services like YouTube made it much, much easier to produce and distribute videos online.
With some difficulty, I figured out how to use video editing software, in my case the Windows Movie Maker program that is included with Windows XP and Windows Vista, and create a video that could be placed online. The early results were crude, mostly a PowerPoint slide show with an audio track, but it allowed me to place the video on services like YouTube.
One of the reasons I made video versions of my audio podcast was to attract a new and younger audience to AirSafe.com, the kind of audience that frequently uses video sharing services like YouTube. For AirSafe.com, the process goes beyond just creating the video. Each one that is produced is part of the Conversation at AirSafe.com podcast series, and like the audio podcasts, they can be downloaded by iTunes subscribers. Also, each video has one or more pages on the main site that have a description of the video, as well as links to the video on both YouTube and Google Video. Also, I provide two other formats that allows users to download individual videos for playback on an iPod or on a Windows or Mac computer.
One of the other recent and major technological innovations for the site has been the use of blogs. For me, the biggest issue I had to overcome with blogs was my perception. When I first heard of them, it was because of the mediaŐs focus on the stereotype of the blogger, a self-absorbed person who spent hours a day writing a free-form diary about the details of their lives.
Based on the stereotype, blogs didn't seem to be at all relevant to AirSafe.com, and I ignored blogs and bloggers for a very long time. That changed radically when I read a few articles that didn't focus on the stereotypical user but on the technology behind blogs.
Unlike web sites, which until recently required some level of programming skill to create and maintain, most blogs are supported by companies that provide free hosting services and online editing tools that allow even novices to launch a new blog within minutes.
I began to look at blogs as a very narrowly focused web site that allowed someone to quickly and easily add new items. For AirSafe.com, blogs solved a problem that I had since the site started. In order to minimize staffing requirements, the site had a focus on content that would change slowly over time or on events that were very infrequent. For example, the site focuses on events that are fatal to passengers and on a limited number of other significant safety events. In a typical year, there may only about ten to fifteen of these events. Each change or update required someone to go in and update one or more pages within the site.
With a blog, I may make only one change to the main site to add information about the blog as well as a few links. After that, each blog could be updated independently of the site. This opened up several possibilities, including creating special interest content that may not fit within the traditional content of the site. For example, the newsletter that used to be distributed only through a mailing list is now also available in a blog. The podcast also has a blog that announces each new episode and that also provides links to resources related to that particular episode. There are also AirSafe.com associated blogs on bird strikes to aircraft, plane crash videos, and airline passenger complaints.
AirSafe.com has so far incorporated many new technologies and services into the site, and the innovation continues. New options under consideration include a Facebook page or other kinds of social networking content, user-generated content based on the same kind of technology that runs Wikipedia, or some other online technology that has yet to be released. The one thing that is certain is that the Internet will continue to change, and AirSafe.com will have to continue to evolve to keep up with the needs of the audience.
In the next episode in the Secrets of AirSafe.com series, I'll talk about legal and social realities that AirSafe.com has had to face and how those realities shape what you see not only on AirSafe.com but on most web sites.
For more information about this show, and about other AirSafe.com podcasts, please visit secrets.airsafe.org. There you'll find links to related resources, as well as AirSafe.com contact information.
Thanks for listening, and I'll see you next time.
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http://www.airsafe.com/podcasts/show57.htm -- Revised: 28 July 2008