Takin’ Care of Business

Professional Online Networking – A Golden Rule

{Something I found in my archives that I wrote back in 2009}

In today’s business world, networking in an activity expected of any serious professional – in any field – and a pre-requisite for growth and success.  You can’t take a college course in it, but you can drown yourself in a hundred books, many written before the advent of Internet-based networking.  And it is today’s web networking platforms that dictate the speed of business, much like at the advent of overnight delivery and real-time transactions across unlimited geographies.

If you’re not purposely networking, you’re missing a central business practice, or worse yet, not having any control over your relationships (and perceived relationships), which is part of your reputation, professional value, and even brand.  And if you’re networking, but not ONLINE, you’ve just brought a bicycle to a drag race.

If there is a Golden Rule of Networking, this is it: Use common sense to intentionally build professional relationships.

This has always been important, from the Silk Road to the Information Superhighway.  Common sense hasn’t changed.  But few people take the time to realize common sense, and fewer know how to translate it to today’s nearly instant, boundary-less, digital world.

For example, part of networking is word-of-mouth marketing (WOM).  People will talk about you and your business.  The point is to participate in the dialog.  In the “real world” this is best done by belonging to – or at least learning from – such groups as BNI (Business Network International, www.BNI.com), where you learn to use relationships to spread your message the way you want it to be spread, instead of leaving referrals and testimonials to chance.  On the Internet, most industries have discussion forums of all kinds where people discuss companies and their products and services, yet some professionals don’t even look at what’s being said, let alone setting the tone for such a virtual town meeting that will go on with or without them.  But back to individual networking itself…

To kill two birds with one stone, let’s look at networking on the Internet in relation to what we do in real life, covering five main points.

(1) Belong to different networks for different reasons.  People don’t belong to the Western New York Paralegals Association for the same reasons they go to the Smith Family Reunion, or do community service through Kiwanis.  Immediate family, church, your bowling league – there are things you would share with some of these people and not others.

The Internet has many different networking sites, each with its own “culture” or flavor.  On one end we have the original social site, MySpace, where kids discovered they could connect with all their friends, showing off their favorite bands, arms-length photos of themselves, and be creative with a nightmarish palate of backgrounds and color combinations, with music blaring uncontrollably for often unsuspecting visitors.  This is primarily for kids … and businesses, clubs, or bands that have a young target audience.

At the other end, we have global communities like LinkedIn.Com and eCademy.com, where people’s profiles focus on their profession, their resume.  Nobody cares about your favorite movies or what high school you attended.  This is where job-seekers go, as well as entrepreneurs, authors, politicians, and literally millions of CEOs, VPs, and the like from government agencies and small businesses to multi-nationals and Fortune 500 companies.

In between, we have sites like Friendster.com and Spoke.com, with Facebook near the middle of the current networking universe.  Here you find teens and grandparents, small business owners and professionals.  And guess what?  Vast numbers of the captains of industry you’ll find on more “serious” sites are here, too.  After all, they’re human like the rest of us, with family and friends.  And they recognize the value of the medium professionally.

And this is why different people use different sites – and usually more than one.  I myself have a MySpace (yuck!) just so I could monitor my daughter’s profile and pics when she was younger.  I have a LinkedIn profile where I was recently appointed an administrator of a discussion group on Global Citizenship, but spend most of the time discussing professional issues or discovering the connections of those around me, even building a few new ones now and then – people around the world I would likely never have met in my lifetime otherwise.  My Facebook puts me back in touch with old classmates, keeps me in touch with long-distance family and friends, and is a general social forum to interact casually.

In “real life”, being in many “networks” (personal and professional social groups) extends your reach and knowledge through others.  If you have to, you can ask your child’s dance teacher if they know an accountant they trust, right?  So realize this is the point of belonging to networks online – they are a representation of your social capital, but more importantly they are the best mechanism today for extending your contact world for all reasons, personal and professional.

(2) Know that anyone could be – and probably is – watching.

Some people might decide to have a few too many at their best friend’s wedding.  But they might not want to play the video for their boss or perspective client.  Being causal in a casual environment like Facebook is alright, but be aware that employers and other business people can and do check such sites to find out who personally they are doing business with.

Facebook (and many other sites) have options for controlling who has access to what content.  You can choose to make a video or photo album – or your whole profile (except your “friend” list) – “friends only” so only those in your network can see you making faces in the mirror on a day off.  Ask yourself if what you show or say would be undesirable for professional contacts to see and act accordingly.

Going back to the first point, use each network differently.  You wouldn’t talk about what Harry Potter character best describes your personality during a board meeting, and wouldn’t discuss multi-cultural considerations of business ethics in the gym locker room.  Well, maybe I would, but that’s my problem.  So just as you would introduce yourself differently in a job interview than at lady’s night, focus your profile and other content on what you are using each network for.  Again, use common sense.

(3) Don’t disappear for too long.

Never in history has it been so easy and such a small time commitment to keep in touch and build relationships with people.  If you can’t be bothered to check your online networks at least a couple times a week, you’re back on that bicycle we talked about.  Many people spend far more time than others to get the same results, simply because they grew up on the bike path – it’s the only thing they know.  Face-to-face, truly personal contact is still ideal.  But the world is too big and waits at airport security too long to put all your eggs in that basket.  From marriages to mergers, people have been developing successful and meaningful relationships across fiber optic strands for years, and it’s more and more integral to modern life.

Without writing another article right here and now, here are some hints for keeping in touch with your network:

  • Comment on other people’s posts and photos now and then. Don’t be contrived, but find something meaningful to say that shows you took the time to check on them.  Remember, nearly everything someone does online is an effort to communicate.  Be on the other end.
  • Inform people what you are doing. You don’t have to use your cell phone to “Tweet” (Twitter.Com) every time you turn on the air conditioning or miss a bus, but give people some sense that you are a real human being with a life that isn’t so monotonous a once-a-year weather report over your house suffices.  Post an interesting thought that occurred to you … or a book that really touched you … but don’t feel you have to entertain.  And when you’re looking for something or someone, it’s a way to put the word out.  For example, anyone in my networks knows I am looking to hire – the days of mass emailing everyone you know are coming (gratefully) to an end.  I can’t even imagine mailing or calling all these people individually, let alone the people I don’t know they know.
  • Check your profile from time to time to make sure basic information is up to date. The last thing you want is your former employer accusing you of still representing them, or your spouse wondering why you are still telling the world you’re single.  Log out and see what the world sees – remember that when you are logged in, you have permission to see everything, which could be very different that what others see.
  • In networks where there are discussions – or Question & Answer sections like on LinkedIn – participate from time to time. Just ask or answer one question, or post a few thoughts on someone else’s rant.  Then follow the responses for a couple days, wait a while, rinse, repeat.
  • Remember it’s not a chore that REQUIRES your time. You can be as involved or uninvolved as you want, and let your profile on a site that doesn’t suit your needs sit unused as long as your information is accurate.  Just remember that the benefit is according to effort, like anything else, especially relationship, which is what it is all about.

(4) Just because you can be friends with everyone, doesn’t mean you should.

This is my pet peeve.  The person with the most people in their network when they die … well … is dead anyway, and how many of those people will even know or care to attend the funeral?

Beware of “open networkers” and at all costs DON’T BECOME ONE.  Just like the business card collectors of yore thought the weight of their rolodex was akin to some sort of business virility, some will boast and swear size matters in the digital medium.

But like all things Internet, the rules haven’t changed.  Like a business card, you must look at a “link” or “friend” in your or someone else’s immediate network and ask what is the quality of the relationship being represented by the card or link.  Is there a relationship at all?  The average person knows many dozens or even a hundred people well enough to do more than put a name, face, and occupation together.  Much more is not possible, except in a superficial sense if one has an extraordinary memory for such things.

Let’s hit this point home hard.  Think about this, but don’t do this at home, folks: Ask someone with over 500 “connections” on a business networking site how many of those people would recognize their name and be able to say something they know about them.  But here’s the scary part … how many people in their network are scam artists?  Axe murderers?  How would they even know?

Why should they – and you – care?  Real or not, your connections represent some sort of relationship, and if it is used to connect other people and things go bad, what does that say about you?  Just being in your network is a sort of recommendation.  You will be judged by the friends you keep, so at least know who they are!

You can’t in good faith recommend someone on the fact you found their card at a chamber mixer – or they randomly asked to be your “friend” online – right?  Online or off, you publicly represent yourself in part by your relationships of trust and confidence.  This isn’t a big deal on casual sites where people won’t assume a close relationship, but in more serious sites, a connection should imply (at least most of the time) an actual, real-life working relationship.

So don’t be intimidated.  If you have 50 connections that represent real relationships of trust and confidence, that is probably a more valuable network that people with over 500, simply because the chances are they will “connect” with anyone at the drop of a hat.  And we all knew one or more people in high school like that … it’s a humorous if uncouth comparison, but not without merit.  You can bet most of their “connections” represent nothing more than chance encounters – and are nearly useless compared to yours.

Remember, you set the rules in your life who you spend time with, share secrets with, want to be in business with, want to become friends with.  With some networks, adding a stranger that doesn’t creep you out isn’t a big deal – it’s just fun and you can drop them if they start telling racist jokes or want to show you their cam with a free trial membership.  But in professional-oriented sites, learn to say no.  Don’t kiss on the first date.  Get to know people before you tell the world they are on your team, and decide for each person and network if you know them well enough.

(5) Have fun.  This isn’t a job.  This is your life.  Sure there may be restrictions in some industries (such as financial planning) what you can and can’t publicly say online.  But with multiple networks you can separate (or combine) your personal and professional life as you wish.  And you can discover, maintain, and grow relationships with less time and effort than ever before.  The era of staying out of touch for years is over.  No excuses.

And online networking is so common that if you don’t have any experience, chances are you know several people that do.  Even strangers online tend to want to help others navigate such sites, so always feel free to ask anyone, anytime.  But you learn to swim by being in the water.  Go to a few sites.  Create a profile.  Fill in the information, being as open or private as you want.  Look for people you already know to join the virtual representation of your social sphere.  Then explore, explore, and keep exploring, meeting new people and discovering the contacts you didn’t know your own contacts had.

The superhighway is there waiting for you.  Grab the brass ring.  And follow the Golden Rule: Use common sense to intentionally build professional relationships.  It’s easier and more rewarding than ever.

How to Direct and Trust Your Web Developer

One of the challenges of web design is that when clients give direction, they really don’t know what they are saying, or why. They may like this or that other site, or a site you make for them more or less, but really don’t know why. They can’t put their finger on it, and expect you to know what they mean. Most of the time it’s the quality of the photos (that they will supply) or lack thereof (that they will not supply). Sometimes it’s the colors, or the font, or the shiny Flash video on the front page. But they don’t know that. All they know is their reaction to what is in front of them, and a vague reason why, usually wrong enough that when you do exactly what they want, they are not happy anyway and can only go back to saying it’s not like {enter site they like here}.

The Challenges

My job is to educate them, or barring that, make guesses what they want somewhere between what their gut will tell them is alright and still looking professional and not embarrassing. Or I have to make it clear what they want (exactly the way they are demanding it) is not in their best interest for a technical reason, or not in their budget, those two going hand in hand more than you’d think. Often it means having to steer them — again, if they are willing — toward something their CLIENTS will like and convince them they they and their family and friends (and sometimes even existing clients) are not their target audience.

The problem is, I care. I don’t see my job as a taxi driver being told what address to arrive at. O, if it were that simple! I am more like a mechanic being told to put the engine in the driver’s seat and the tires on the roof. So when I say something is a bad idea, I don’t mean I want to take them somewhere other than where they want to go — I’ve saving their hide, their brand, and trying to avoid unsatisfactory results I will be blamed for, as well as the potential embarrassment of a sub-par or inappropriately designed site with my name on it. That is why I charge quite a bit more than a basement code jockey, and rarely do business with clients who want to nickel and dime themselves (and me).

I’d rather have more input from them than little or none, and can even tolerate some micromanagement. But at some point there has to be trust, and I mean trusting that my judgment is based on years of professional experience that they simply do not have. I will always defer to a client’s intentions and needs. They must defer — at least in general — to doing the work as it makes sense as a professional hired to help them.

“But you’re a computer wizard. Other people don’t understand how to click things.”

I get this a lot. People wrongly assume I am not in touch with the marketplace, the real world. Actually, I’m not a computer wizard. I’m a marketing professional in the medium of the Internet. It’s my JOB to be in touch with human behavior on the web, more than the client. I don’t see things through the eyes of a programmer when it comes to front-end experience. I know how “real people” use the web. And I know that there’s only so much you can dumb down the usability of the site before it looks dumb or even insulting to the average user. When the client  and some of their friends or users giving them feedback are behind the curve, they are cutting off their own noses by demanding their assumptions about what others will like are the rule and not the exception.

Simple isn’t Simple: Content versus Design

Every site has it’s own purpose and amount of necessary content. It should be straightforward in presentation, and be clear is how to find whatever a target visitor (from one or more target audiences) might want to find. The CONTENT in its presentation and organization should be simple, but not necessarily the DESIGN. If someone says “the site is really simple and easy to use”, they are referring — whether they consciously know it or not — to the organization, not the design. So to keep it simple (in a positive way), that doesn’t mean the site should look by minimalist, or like a stick figure. A simple or complex design can be used with simple or complex content, and is dictated mostly by industry and expectation. A block club’s website shouldn’t look like the Smithsonian’s, and a bank shouldn’t look like a personal blog. In fact, some personal blogs look better than that of some institutions. And it’s embarrassing as hell, making people wonder if they are for real, or if they found the right site. When a company or organization — especially a large or prestigious one — does this, it says “we hired a relative to throw something together for us in exchange for a t-shirt.”

And I hate to bring it up, but there’s also the age issue. Some people old enough to have lived through the early stages of the web —  especially those who don’t use the web as much as the rest of us — actually find comfort in sites that look like they were designed in 1997, no matter how bad they are. Like an oblivious friend wearing bell-bottoms or a really wide tie, you can’t tell them what year it is. Yes, web sites and the expectations of the public have changed drastically over the last 15 years. It’s no different than what we’ve seen with cell phones and computers, except a web site is a lot more public than what’s in your pocket or on your desk. Think of your brand. Think of the children.

More specifically, think of future customers or members. When you cater to the non-native web users or DOSosaurs (old-time technology users not up to speed on the present), you alienate everyone else out there — new generations of consumers and participants. It’s like only advertising in the phone book because your current customers all use it, even though most people toss it in the recycle bin before it reaches the front door.

Avoiding the Circus

A site should be clean, but not naked. But the other extreme is more design than content. If there’s hardly any text or images directly related to it, the more the window dressing, the more obvious they spent more money on image than substance. It cries out misplaced priorities at best, vanity at worst, either on the part of the designer or the company. A visual circus can detract from the information and even make the user feel like they are jumping through mental hoops to find nuggets of any value. So when is a visual circus acceptable? Well, if the web site is literally for a circus. Or a rock band. Or artist. In that case, it is all the more important to organize the content and navigation to be as simple as possible. But you can still end up with a circus in a simple design, with too many diverse things calling your attention on a front page (or even every page). Want to make sure something important can be seen on every page, reminding the viewer without getting in their way or reading the site? That’s what sidebars and footers are for. But too many “NEW!” graphics and promo boxes reduces the impact of everything instead of increasing it. There are a LOT of ways to screw this up on the designer’s end, so please don’t outright ask for it.

How to Choose and Handle a Web Developer

Every web guy is different. Some will do whatever you tell them because they don’t care or know any better. Some WON’T do what you want because they don’t care or know any better. But some of us may give you a hard time to save you from yourself. How do you know the difference?

Determine who they really are. Are they really a geek waiting to be given direction on every detail, or a marketing and communications consultant interested in the real-world result? Is there knowledge based primarily in technology or the process and psychology of the web? Are they focused too much on code or design, or use “form follows function”, focusing on content and functionality based on the purpose of the site? Do they pay any deliberate attention to fonts and colors specifically related to your industry? If they can’t give you advice (and a reasonable explanation) on the direction of your site in such details, it’s up to you to know all that and communicate it to them. More hand-holding will be required, versus them holding your hand, which is preferable in most cases.

What questions are they asking? I don’t mean technical questions you shouldn’t have to know about. I mean questions about that only you can answer: Who is your target audience(s)? What are your functions (products and service areas, etc.) and their priorities? For branding, they should ask to see what you’ve already done and if you continue to go in that direction. We’re talking logos, color schemes, fonts, everything. If they don’t have a plan, someone should create one. If you don’t, they will (or won’t). This is roulette, and you need to be clear if they have expertise in branding or are just “winging it” based on nothing in particular (because that’s what you gave them). If someone has an existing site, I start by replicating the content and may or may not change design based on the “interview” process. Then we have something to compare and contrast, decide what we like and don’t like.

But again, who is your developer? Are you the lead with them as a code horse, or are they an expert guiding you? Ideally, it’s a team process. If your web guy asks for direction on every little thing, or doesn’t ask anything and does what they want, that’s not a good sign. Look for the sweet spot in the middle.

How much is too much? Giving your web guy more information (including photos and files) and feedback is better than less, in my opinion, simple because you don’t have to use everything you have, but a web designer can’t use what you don’t give them. However, there are two pitfalls — Micromanagement and Design by Committee. The more specific you get about details, the more your designer has to work and you can’t expect them to do it for free. Sometimes even the simplest shift of a button is more trouble than you would think because of the nature of the code these days. Sometimes what may seem like a minor change to you means redeveloping the whole site in another format to accommodate some feature. Lastly, you can’t just “copy and paste” from Word documents or other websites, especially whole layouts. If you don’t know why, that’s a topic for another discussion, but you need to take our word for it.

But too many cooks in the kitchen is the worst. When you have disparate goals and expectations, with everyone throwing in their personal “requirements” (versus necessary information and functionality), the site will become a schizophrenic nightmare. It will look like a circus and likely not make anyone happy. Feedback and cooperative input is great, but there such a thing as too much. Someone has to take the responsibility and make the final calls, recognizing that nothing is written in stone.

This is also true of too many cooks one after another. Over time, new people may take the wheel — new designers, new project managers, new management — and add this or that, consistent or not with the branding of the past still visible. You end up with a Frankenstein site that looks equally fractured and unfocused. Sometimes a total redesign makes more sense than an umpteenth addition or partial change to get by.

Personality Matters

In the end, it’s really about getting along. You need to know when and how much to trust your developer, based on what their role is and their competency in and out of just keyboarding. You may need to let go of prejudices and preferences about what a site should look like for your purpose, keeping in mind the people using it may be very different from you in age, web literacy, and taste. You may need to hand-hold, but make sure if you do, it is only when necessary, letting the pro do their job. If you are giving them a lot of money and they are worth it, give them your ear and attention to the project as they request, in exchange for their counsel and an end result you can all be proud of.

Best. OCR. Evar. (And it’s Free)

I probably have OCR somewhere on my computer. It may be bundled with my Lexmark software, something that the very thought of getting to work makes me cringe given the unnecessary complexity of their printer-scanner-copier.

155All I wanted to do was convert an image of a news article into text (pictured here). It was not a particularly high-res image, and had columns. I found all sorts of free online converters for other things so I figured I’d give it a Google.

I tried “Online OCR Service” (garbled), then “Free OCR” (quality of results as catchy as its name).

The third time was a charm: “Free Online OCR

Free Online OCR

This is where I sound like an advertisement. When I went to use it, I uploaded the file and unlike the others, the next step was “preview”. Okay …

It showed me the image with a slide-able region to cordon off the text I wanted. I realized how important this was because like most OCR, the other services (and software I used over the years) adjoined text from columns. Heck, I couldn’t even copy-and-paste from many a PDF using Adobe without the same problem.

But I was wrong about “Free Online OCR”. I didn’t see the checkbox.

Yes, there is actually a checkbox if you want it to discern columns.

The result?

I still had to append the end of lines in Notepad (it preserved the line breaks like any other OCR), but the result was STELLAR. I had to change a period to a comma and add one period.

That’s all.

Seriously.

Two newspaper columns on a 72 dpi JPEG and I found two tiny errors to adjust.

Why would anyone pay money when something like this is free? I can’t imagine any software doing a better job, no matter how much it costs.

Visit. Bookmark. Use. Share on Facebook it’s awesomeness. Repeat.

Stop Tweeting Your @ss Off!

40billion

Stop it. You claim to be a successful Internet entrepreneur (“Started by Yale & MIT grad who became an entrepreneur at 10”), yet you break the most basic rule of social media — don’t flood people. Especially with twenty of more “Say of the Day”s in one day.

It kinda looses effect.

Okay. I’m ready.

{deep breath}
 
It’s time to move my primary surfing from IE to Chrome.
 
Sorry, Bill … I’ll send for my things.
 

It’s Official … TV on Decline

According to the Nelson ratings, this year shows the first year television ownership has actually declined.

Social Media Nearly a Necessity

http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/26-promising-social-media-stats-for-small-businesses/

Avoiding Facebook? Really?

{This was my response to a question on LinkedIn, namely if Facebook should be avoided because some customers may not be using it.}

My clients are often concerned about this, but in reality it is so rare their customers are not on facebook (with only ONE person of ONE client documented as a real case) that it would be silly to not play the social media game.

It would be like YOU not having a telephone because a handful of potential clients might not have one.  It just doesn’t make sense.  There’s almost no way to be “dependent” on it, worrying about people missing out, when it’s not going to be your ONLY medium.  Even if it was, some businesses only advertise on radio with promotions or other information.  That isn’t necessarily a bad decision either and should be seen as reaching a certain audience rather than precluding others. 

But Social media is used more than all other media combined by far, so it you INSIST on putting all your eggs in one basket, it may as well be something like Facebook.

eNom and Afternic: Conflict of Interest?

My first registrar was Bulk Register, now owned by eNom.  (Actually, it was Network Solutions, but I don’t like to talk about that.)  I still have a few accounts I didn’t switch over to my current registrar because they aren’t due yet, but an odd thing happened recently, confirming my decision.

I lost a domain.

Mind you, I’m used to regular notices as to what is expiring and when.  My current registrar send out so many by every means imaginable that I’ve asked them to stop calling me.  But without warning, a client called me up and asked why an unused domain usually parked on his active site went to a page trying to sell it.

I looked it up and found it was now owned by “BuyDomians.com“.  No redemption period?  Maybe a short one, but again, I wasn’t notified.

I contacted them and they offered it to me for several thousands of dollars.  Based on traffic, all the free value estimators showed it worth $0 except one, which valued it in the three-figure range.  I tried convincing them it was of no value to anyone but my client, but they insisted it was valued according to marketability and would not let it go to its rightful owner for much less.

Upon researching this type of situation, I found that an ICANN dispute costs a cool grand just to file and then it’s a crap shoot to interpret the regulations such that they are breaking the law.  I believe they are, and simply can make it not worth anyone’s time to challenge them.

My old registrar insisted that I must be blocking their emails — which was ironic because we were communicating by email and my server team found no such record of receving emails from the address they use for notifications.  They claim to send out at least three notices.  (For another upcoming domain, I have to admit I later did receive one.)

But shortly after this fiasco — which ended in my offering free hosting for life for the client to make it up to them — I received an email from eNom with the following message:

Moniker and eNom are now live as Afternic DLS Premium partners

The reason this caught my attention is that when I tried to play nice with BuyDomains, I inquired about selling some of my own domain names.  After all, if they’re charging an inflated price, they should be able to buy mine at a high price as well! 

But they don’t buy domains.  It’s handled by their sister company {drum roll please}, Afternic

Maybe eNom is telling the truth about notifications.  But they do have a huge potential benefit by letting them lapse.  Just sayin’ …

Browser Wars – Bill Gates, Sir Jim, and You

IE-Haters Anonymous

Finally, there is help — and hope — for you.

Heeding this article may not keep you in good standing with the IT community, but the rest of the world — and your checkbook — will thank you for it. The first part is a 5-step program to letting go of what’s been holding you back. The goal is to shift your perspective from emotional to realistic and from a programming-engineering mentality to that of a business person in the real world.

But first, I am reminded of what may be no more than an urban legend, but makes the point nonetheless. Engineers at NASA supposedly spent millions of dollars developing an ink pen that could write in zero gravity, as ink pens are gravity-fed. Like so many other things, they engineered it and over-engineered it, making sure it met every possible specification for every possible use. The Russians used a pencil.

I’m able to share all this with you because I’m a business person with IT knowledge, not the other way around. And a business person is worth his salt only in how well they accurately perceive and deal with market reality. Being an uber-geek or the Alpha male in the IT department is the top of the wrong ladder when it comes to this. You are a skilled craftsman — an engineer. But the success of your product is only in small part determined by the prowess of your craft, and certainly not by doing what is “best” from a purely technical standpoint. It is determined by its usability, and in particular ACCEPTANCE by the users in the real world target audience.

Remember, Bill Gates is the richest man in the world, because of business sense, not programming skill. But I’m going too far, too fast. Let’s start with baby steps.

I. Give up your idealistic crusading — you are not a general in the browser wars.

This is not some ancestral wrong to be righted, as if Bill Gates stole someone’s sacred penguin in a former life and now his corporate heirs are living off its golden eggs. There is no open source holy land to win back. No one cares if someone bought up Boardwalk and Park Place before Netscape had the chance. Since when did brand names get dragged into socio-political debates, anyway? Who cares by what means of voodoo and buccaneering Bill dominated the market. While we are busy hating the capitalist rich and praising the … well … not-so-rich-just-yet other players, the marketplace whooshes past us. They don’t lose sleep over it — they’re too busy playing the game. We need to get our own game on.

But if it helps, think of Microsoft as the new Roman Empire. They were hated by most of the then-known world (regardless of the fact it brought peace and accessibility of things like plumbing and eduction to all, whether they liked it or not). They were bullies; they were saviors. There will always be a king of the hill to be despised and knocked down, whether it be Redmond on Wall Street or America in the United Nations. Straighten your tie, leave the water cooler tribe, and get over it. Why? Next point, if you please.

II. Realize you do not own a browser company

Once you get off the high horse of step 1 — and only then — will you be ready for this step. In the battle of the browsers, who wins the browser wars is NOT your concern. Market reality is, but we’ll get back to that in a later point.

Unless you own stock in it or work for MS, AOL, et alia, you have no reason to push brands on other people with taglines and “best viewed with” whore-links. The few people who care already made up their minds. People who don’t, such as your CUSTOMERS, think it’s geekish and pointless at best, annoying and unprofessional at worst. No one is switching browsers because they see “Take Back the Web” on a bunch of random web pages, except the politically fickle. But the point is … repeat after me: IT IS NOT MY CONCERN. My concern is to deal with market reality, not be the ant who tries to push the SUV of the web to the gas station of my preference.

III. Understand that standards are not always standards

Are your sites W3C compliant? Congratulations — you win a pocket protector. And if you sell it on eBay, you might get a few pennies more than you would from a rusty slide rule. That’s because W3C, no matter how well thought out in theory, is just an artificial, arbitrary standard. Yes, the IDEA of standards are really useful. But they are only helpful in the real world when they are ESTABLISHED in the real world, as in the case of say, metric (IS) weights and measures. At some point, they became “the” standard and not just “a” standard (a proposed standard).

But it seems some of you need the news flash again. W3C is not THE standard. A committee of armchair political techies who think they are saving the virtual world with their own IT wisdom does not establish a standard, no matter who they are and how good it may be. What is requires is wholesale compliance, starting with ALL the biggest players, which they do not have. In other words, it is more accurate to say that a significantly dominant practice, code, even brand, is the real standard, not a paper one. Right now it’s code that works in Internet Explorer.

Since all standards are established by action and not merely decree, we go back to the Romans. 2000 years ago, they did something genius. They made all their vehicles with a particular axle width (incidentally, the same width of American railroads once they became standardized). On one hand, if they didn’t do this instead of just making it a “law” (standard by agreement), it would have meant nothing. But they did.

The result? It was pointless for the leaders of other nations to “make” (declare) a standard of their own, even if some followed it, because most roads not only led to Rome, but were built by Rome. And most carts and such created grooves of the (true) standard width when using dirt roads. If your chariot axle width was your own choosing, you were likely to get stuck, and those complying to the less common “standard” would be passed by those who used the standard established by real life practice. So Rome didn’t merely decide on a standard when there wasn’t one — they actually did it, and it therefore became THE standard. But back to the present, as I think the reader is capable of seeing this as a clear analogy of the history of web standards and browsers.

So what about design considerations then? The above understanding doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ideally create design to work in other browsers. And it’s too easy in my opinion to make a site text-only friendly for the visually impaired not to. (In fact, a certain Microsoft web editing tool does most of that work automatically.) But common sense means doing two things.

Put down your cross and holy water if you haven’t already and design for Internet Explorer FISRT. If you are a web developer by profession, it may be a good idea to use that as your browser by default (O, the horror!) so you can see the web the way most people do. Use Firefox or Opera on your iMac or whatever you use for your personal machine if you have one, but seeing with the eyes of your audience goes a long way when at work. (Of course this goes the same for screen resolutions — you can always tell when someone designs page on a huge monitor and isn’t paying attention to this factor.)

The point is to NEVER ignore how IE renders your pages — like it or not, the people who use it are the lion’s share of any website’s target audience. You may as well put your best foot forward there if you can’t make a code or design work on all browsers. That would be like a French company tending a global market not having their website in English first, with French and other language options second, or worse yet not having it in English at all. To defy the market that way would be pride, not sense. So if it doesn’t work in IE and it’s necessary, drop it without hesitation or regret.

Now with your priorities finally straight, the question is how much time to spend on less-used browser compatibility? You have to decide case by case what is worth the trouble and what is not based on many factors. In the example of Rome, is your particular journey worth having an extra axle width in the trunk to more easily transfer a neighboring country’s lands? Some people today would have a cart for each one, or rather a separate page that pulls up depending on detected browser. It’s a lot of work for some low-paying projects, and not always necessary for big ones if you cross-design design and keep it simple. You have to weigh what your time is worth, and know it’s not always reasonable to expect to please everyone.

As long as essential features work and don’t look bad in the other browsers, you’ve done your job. My rule of thumb? If code or design that is very common doesn’t render on a rare browser (or similarly at a very large or small screen resolution) the viewer has these problem with everyone else’s web pages as well, so wont think ill of it.

IV. Stop making (and taking it) personal.

This step separates the men from the boys. It separates opinion from fact. What browser is best is opinion; which one is used most if fact.

Because most geeks never can make it past Step 2, doing something like defending the IE standard over W3C compliance is heresy. You will be burned at various user groups’ stakes, but not in the board room. So try to live with that. The W3C isn’t buying from your shopping cart or giving you visitors to beef up the worth of your ad space — real people are. Think of them first. Think of the children (COPPA compliance as needed, of course).

But if you defend this point to geeks, they think they are hurting your feelings when they use the term “good browsers” to your face to refer to non-IR clients. “Good” is an opinion, valid or not. “Dominant” is a statistical fact they can take up with God, the universe, and everything, if they don’t like it, but IT’S NOT YOUR BATTLE anymore. You’ve overcome your own denial. And “standard” is something business people and HTML jockeys will never agree on. But now you have the edge. Don’t rub it in their face.

Trust me — it doesn’t win friends.

So now you graduate. This last one is like the last of Buddhism’s “Ten Bulls” when the enlightened one (that’s you now, silly) goes back out into the world to shine for others.

V. Now you are ready to deal constructively with marketplace reality.

Recap what you’ve learned. It doesn’t matter what browser sucks more than another and by how much. It doesn’t matter if the richest man in the world dictates the direction of the web right now. What matters is that until you accept it — and make the best of it — you are still mentally in your parents basement fighting over why your PS-whatever is better than your best friend’s XBOX instead of doing your job.

The Roman Empire fell, as do all empires in politics and the corporate world. And if you did your homework above, it wont matter what is the dominant browser, platform, whatever. Garden of Eden or the New Babylon, following the “when in Rome” principle just makes business sense.

There. Is the monkey off your back, or should I expect hate mail?