Archive for June, 2006

Firefox search plugins

FirefoxWow! I’ve just learned how to write firefox search plugins and they’re so easy to make. So I’m going to share the secret here by supplying a few links and supplying my first free plugin! To start out with, since I couldn’t find one around, I decided to make a search plugin for ABE books, since its such a central resource for so many booksellers. So, if you want to try it out, simple click here and choose to add the search engine to your browser. Obviously, you have to be using Firefox for this to work, so if you’re still one of those sorry folks lumbering across the interweb on your vintage Internet Explorer surfboard, head on over to to find out why you should be using this as your browser.

If you’re using Firefox already and don’t know how the search engine functionality works properly, have a look at this page. It certainly isn’t brain science, and it will save you having to download every search bar application in existence and installing it on your computer.

So, now that you have an idea about Firefox search, and hopefully you’ve installed my magic ABE search plugin, you might want to know a bit more about how you can add other search engines. Have a look here for a massive list of available search engines that you can add to firefox to extend your search functions.

Still, if you’re techie and you’re building websites for booksellers or you’re a bookseller with a bit of IT-savvy, you might want to build a plugin for your own search functionality. I started here for and excellent insight into how the search plugins work. In no time, you should be able to build your own search plugin. Still, this tutorial only shows you how to build your own personal plugin. If you want to share your plugin on the internet, you need to do a little bit of packaging and add some javascript to your website. Here’s a great little tutorial on the whole process.


June 28, 2006 at 5:05 pm Leave a comment

Book dating, technology takes a step forward

An interesting news article landed in my RSS aggregator today. Although this probably won't apply to most rare book dealers, it is interesting to see how technology is progressing for people in the trade. A biologist at Penn State University, whose hobby involves Renaissance prints and maps, has developed an interesting technique to date books, prints and maps. And most excitingly, it seems that his technique is pretty accurate.

Blair Hedges' "print clock" technique simply involves scanning images and then measuring the number of breaks in the individual lines that make up a print. By gathering data from thousands of renaissance prints, he revealed that the changes were usually clocklike on average, and therefore could be useful for calculating the printing dates of other art and books that currently are undated.

Lets hope that this sort of technology makes it to the mainstream and is easy for us to use.

The full article can be found here

June 21, 2006 at 3:13 pm 1 comment


Obviously, like most commercial institutions, improving the positioning of our website on google for a particular keyword is extremely important to us. So I've been looking at how to improve our ranking for the obvious keyword search "rare books". I've read tons of articles on SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and many of them are so full of mumbo-jumbo that really, I don't think anyone *really* knows how to climb the search engine ladder.

Sure, there are plenty of obvious truths about getting a great google rating. To begin with, cross linking is critical if you want to improve your PageRank. And with a higher page rank you're going to be taken a little more seriously. Out of this conception came the notorious Google Bomb. What most SEO articles don't tell you is how much PageRank seems to have been toned down by Google precisely because of this famous hack. Here is a quick example. A search for 'rare books travel' renders a large number of results, here is a quick table of the results and their PageRank to illustrate my point:

Position URL PR
1 5
2 4
3 8
4 7
5 0
6 4
7 2
8 5
9 6
10 4

While PageRank does not seem to be everything, when it comes to search, it clearly does still matter. However, PageRank does not seem to work in the way you would expect it to. A perfect illustration of this is currently rated Number 6 by google for a search on 'rare books': A quick search for sites that Google knows are linking to this page reveals that there are only 8 links to this page. Yet, the page itself gets a PageRank of 6/10. That sort of contradicts what Google has to say about PageRank itself. Not very heartening to say the least. I'm not saying that the above example is not a relevant result, or anything along those lines, but merely that PageRank doesn't work like it says on the tin.

Most SEO articles will talk about keyword density as critical to appearing in relevant search queries. Indeed, even Google would have you believe that their search engine takes this into account. "The best way to ensure that your site returns for your preferred keywords is to include them on your pages. Our crawler analyzes the content of webpages in our index to determine the search queries for which they're most relevant". This seems somewhat obvious. Surely a web page that you are searching for should at least contain the term that you searched for. Not so! On a search for 'rare books', the following sites make it into the top 10 results returned. Here is a table showing how many times the keyword 'rare books' appears on their pages:

Position URL Phrase on page
1 0
2 0
3 0
4 0
5 3
6 0
7 0
8 0
9 0
10 1

Statistics provided by CoolSEOTool 15/06/2006

Wow! I find that amazing. The majority of the first 10 sites returned by Google do not even mention the words "rare books"! This does not mean that they are not relevant or that they are not sites about rare books. But rather that Google's own advice to improve your ranking for a particular keyword is entirely wrong. If you fill a page with mentions of "rare books" you just aren't going to make it into the first 10 results at Google.

But let's analyse those results a little further. Number 6 in that particular search query, turned up as That's Missouri Botanical Gardens' website. Cool! Hmmm, what does that have to do with rare books. I visited the website and at first glance I couldn't find any reference to Rare Books. Finally, clicking on the Research link, and then on a small text link that says 'library' somewhere on that page, I came to "". So the result that Google returned wasn't even relevant to my search. It should have returned the link above, which it does have in its own index. Instead, as somebody interested in Rare Books, I had to navigate through three clicks to find the relevant information. And even then, I'm not sure how relevant the rare books site at MOBOT would be to me. What this means, is that when SEO articles tell you that it is important that links to relevant content are on the front of your site, or are very easily accessible, its not entirely true. Google doesn't really seem to take this very seriously, either.

Other SEO tips include avoiding redirects on your website. Nonetheless, site number 8 in our listing no longer exists, and you are redirected to So Googlebot is quite happy with redirects, and somehow manages to still give you the old link as more relevant than the new one. Even though there is nothing to see there. Apparently, some SEO companies advise people to use CSS rather than tables when styling content. I personally agree with this view as it makes code look a lot neater and makes it easier to maintain. But when it comes to search engines, ignore the advice. ABE is a site laid out entirely with tables, as is Alibris. Avoid Flash content on your website, as google cannot read any of the text inside an SWF file. This is entirely true, but it doesn't stop Heritage from reaching the top 5 positions on Google. All of their news updates and latest stock items on their front page are flash based.

I would love to build on this article further, but time is limited. What I am trying to get at is that on a popular search phrase like "rare books" it is almost impossible to jump onto the first page of google results, no matter how much you follow SEO advise, or Google's own suggestions. At the end of the day, we've noticed our position jump around by up to twenty points within a couple of days. The inner workings of Google are nefarious and its ways are many and mysterious. No matter how somebody tries to sell you better Google ranking, you're probably better off spending your money on good old traditional marketing methods.

June 15, 2006 at 11:51 am 9 comments

Good thinking

I was just thinking about what makes people want to start collecting rare books and was googling around and stumbled on an article linked off The article is just a link through to 24/7 Press Releases. And refers to this concept of selling "starter packs" for new book collectors. Two things struck me about this. Firstly, the bookseller that is doing this has released a press release about it, which must be doing good them some good in raising their profile a little. But at the same time, this is actually a really clever idea. It seems to me that the whole rare book trade is somewhat closed to mister joe public, and a number of years back I would never have even considered collecting rare books, just on the grounds that I didn't know much about them and that stuff was best left to whoever does that sort of stuff. This industry definitely needs new blood, and encouraging new collectors is one of the best things anybody could do at the moment.

A few weeks back I bumped into a lawyer and we chatted about what each of us did. He was fascinated that I worked at an antiquarian bookstore and was genuinely interested in the sorts of things that we stocked. He had a close business friend who was getting married in the next few weeks and he wanted to give him something unique and lasting. I suggested he have a browse around our shop. Unfortunately, when I met up with him again, he had given up. He said that he didn't really know what would constitute a fair investment or how to find something that would make a great gift within his budget. He had ended up resorting to buying something else. What he really needed was a bit of guidance. And collections like these, would have made the sale.

Lets hope some other booksellers run with similar ideas. 

June 14, 2006 at 1:33 pm Leave a comment

VPN yo’self

With the Olympia bookfair just around the corner, I've been quite busy. We've been printing out little mini catalogues and packing up stock. Getting things to look good and get ordered right on our website. And of course, sorting out equipment for the fair. As a result, I haven't had much time to post here, so forgive my brief absence.

Nonetheless, the work I've been doing has given me opportunity to look at some new technology. Usually at Olympia, we try to set up a VPN between our fair laptop and the shop to work on our data in realtime. This process can get pretty complicated and is often a little tedious to set up. To make things a little more tricky, our core server at the office runs Linux as its base operating system. So configuring a VPN is a fractionally more complicated than a point-and-click excercise.

Last year, I set up OpenSWAN (a variant of the well known FreeSWAN VPN server software for linux) and connected to it with a very hard to track down free-release of SSH-Sentinel. Unfortunately, since that release of SSH-Sentinel, the software has become commercial and we found that the last free-release is fairly buggy and can throw up some interesting problems with your normal networking facilities under windows. This year, I felt it was time to review the whole VPN setup and find something a little less complicated and that would give us a lot more flexibility in our setup.

At first I looked at Hamachi which looked very promising and would probably be very useful to most small dealers. It has a unique system that looks very much like your average Instant Messaging client. You simply add the computers you want on your VPN to a group and voila! you're connected and your VPN exists. Unfortunately, from my perspective, the software is still relatively young and the linux support for it is weak. I didn't think this would be ideal for the scenario that I wanted to set up for our fair laptop. Still, for people with small networks… this is a great option. Especially if you run windows. You literally don't need to know what a VPN is to make use of it…

Finally, I downloaded OpenVPN and gave that a whirl. I cannot be more supportive of an open source initiative when it comes to networking software. Compared to the many other VPN systems I have tried out under linux, this was as simple as you could get. Although the documentation is not well written, there is plenty of it and if you're willing to wade around a bit you can get your VPN up and running with the least hassle in around half an hour.

On top of the ease of configuration on the Linux side, the software also runs on Windows and MacOS X. This means that all of your VPN software is the same across all platforms. While the configuration files might seem arcane to the average gui user, being simple text files, they are not overly long and the syntax is well documented with many examples available to help you through your first configuration. Once installed under windows, you can even look at installing a small gui for the application from here. Although this gui is not particularly advanced and doesn't help out much with configuration file editing, it does make it relatively simple to initiate your connection and troubleshoot once you're up and running.  GUI software under linux is far more developed, and if you've got time to learn your way around, you should check out something like Kovpn. Personally, I found just changing a few variables in the text config files was sufficient, and there was little need to run any complex software.

 All in all, I was pretty impressed with the suite and it didn't take me long to get a powerful VPN up and traversing two firewalls. Now its just a matter of getting it all to run right at Olympia. I'm holding thumbs.

June 7, 2006 at 12:13 pm Leave a comment

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