The past few weeks I’ve been absorbed with getting caught up on some maintenance work on RateTea. This includes fixing broken links, updating information on retired or discontinued teas, and fixing the images.
Nowadays I do nearly all this work myself. Although there are two other site admins for RateTea, Sylvia has never done much maintenance of the site database, instead doing mostly graphic design and editing, and although Gretchen used to, she does not currently do any active maintenance of the sort I’m talking about here.
I actually find some of this tedious work satisfying, as I’ll explain below. But I want to talk first about broken links.
Why do links break?
RateTea, when possible, links to the product page for each individual tea on our site. As we presently list some 6700+ teas (an ever growing figure), this is a lot of URL’s. There are two main reasons that links to tea pages break:
- The tea is discontinued, and the page is taken down
- The company redesigns their website and changes its URL scheme, so that all old links to deep pages on their site break
In both of these cases, the broken links are unnecessary, and actually harm the company. Links to a company’s product pages help the company, as they help the website gain traffic and visibility, and they also help indirectly influence the site’s authority and search rankings. Both of these can lead to increased sales. When links break, a company is losing out.
Why do I say the broken links are unnecessary? Because they can be handled by redirects or placeholder pages. In my series on best practices for tea company websites, on my old tea blog, I wrote about link permanence and I explain how companies can use 301 redirects and pages about old, retired products to profit from old links. I recommend reading this if you work for a tea company (or are interested in any sort of e-commerce), and have not yet done so.
Other Maintenance: Retired Teas
The topic of broken links relates to another topic which I’ve thought about a lot, which is that of retired teas. I want to write more about this later, but one of the things I did when going through the RateTea database is to check which teas are still in use, and which have been retired. Some companies, like Celestial Seasonings and Upton Tea Imports, make this easy, by either publishing notices or lists of retired products, or by keeping old product pages up with a notice that the product has been permanently discontinued.
In other cases though, I have trouble finding a straight answer about whether or not a tea has really been retired…in some cases I’ve found that a tea is no longer listed on a company’s website, but is still for sale. It gets tricky to get a clear answer when I don’t have an open communication channel with a tea company, especially with the larger, multinational brands that have different catalogues and offerings in different regions.
Updating Images and Fixing Image Dimensions
When I first created RateTea, I used a dynamic (variable) dimensions for the thumbnail of each tea. This made the design of the layout on various pages unwieldly, and I later decided that I wanted to go over to a fixed, square thumbnail. Unfortunately, some of the thumbnails stored on the server were still in other dimensions. I thought these looked unprofessional, so I have been going through and systematically cleaning them out, starting with the brands of tea which get the most views on RateTea. Now, most of the major tea companies have square thumbnails which display nicely on all pages of the site.
Many companies have also changed their packaging, so this also gave me an opportunity to update the thumbnails to reflect the newer packaging. On some brands, the result of this change is striking. The page for Bigelow used to look pretty terrible, I think. Check it out now:
I like Bigelow’s new packaging, and regardless of whether or not I liked it, I think it’s important to have the thumbnails on the site reflect the packaging that people are seeing out there in the world. As a side-note, I noticed that the decaffeinated Constant Comment is actually ranking higher than the caffeinated tea. This was unintutive to me, and I wonder if it’s a statistical artifact of which reviewers have happened to rate one tea or the other (only two reviewers overlap). Perhaps this can push me to tweak the RateTea algorithms to make them more accurate.
On Tedious Work
One thing that has been interesting to me, over the past week, is how much I’ve enjoyed doing the tedious, repetitive work of updating the RateTea database. A huge portion of what I do with RateTea is writing and research, and I find writing in particular to be very draining (although I also find it very satisfying). It’s nice to do something relatively mindless, yet also mentally stimulating, for a change. It’s almost a little bit like playing a video game.
I also have noticed, though, that doing an extensive amount of tedious work can often spark valuable innovations. I noticed this a long time ago, in a summer job I had working in the fiscal office of the Children and Youth agency in Lancaster County. In that case, I was given tedious work involving TANF (Welfare) paperwork–filing papers, pulling records from, and entering records into a database, and sending mailings. After plowing through weeks of this work, I began to develop skills to automate. I used Microsoft Access and VisualBasic to automate some of the work, and by the end, I had reduced about 7 hours of daily work to taking about 3 hours, giving me time to help automate tasks for others in the office.
Lately I’ve been doing the same for RateTea. For example, I realized that I was spending a fair amount of time cropping, resizing, and adding margins to images that weren’t being handled gracefully by RateTea’s existing server-side code for resizing images…so I took a peek at the code and started adding more analysis of the image, reflecting the same process that I used when working with the images manually. It worked beautifully–the Bigelow images seen above are ones that would have tripped up my old code, but which worked beautifully (and were able to be generated automatically, server-side) by my new code. This saved a tremendous amount of time.
The pattern, regardless of the job I am working in, is essentially the same: by doing several hours of tedious work, just buckling down and focusing on getting it down, I develop insights that help me to later automate the work.
What do you think?
- How valuable do you think it is for me to continue putting effort into maintaining the RateTea database? Do you currently use RateTea often to look up information on teas from different companies? How important to you is it that such a database is accurate and frequently updated?
- What do you think of the new Bigelow packaging? Do you like it?
- Do you notice when a website has thumbnails that are awkwardly distorted? How much of a difference do you think it makes to have thumbnails with proper dimensions? For unusually narrow or wide images, is whitespace around a tiny thumbnail always preferable to a distorted image?
- Do you enjoy tedious work tasks? Have you ever been able to automate your work in the manner I described above? Do you think it’s only really possible for people with programming expertise, or have you found other ways to save time or automate repetitive tasks?