Developers Log

Clean URLs and .htaccess

As we prepare to roll out the new feature (see Mysterious New Feature?!) we’re beginning to implement a few site-wide changes. The first to go up is the addition of new “clean URL” functionality.

Clean URLs, also known as simple URLs, are exactly what they sound like – short, easy to say, easy to remember web addresses. Some complex sites need to use extremely long URLs in order to pass information between pages. Next time you’re browsing Amazon for instance, check out your address bar. It’s a mess. As AwesomeStart approaches three thousand sub-pages and dozens of new features, our URLs have started to look chaotic too.

For nearly a decade, people have side-stepping the problem by using services like TinyURL to share URLs. We’re not big fans of URL shorteners…mainly because they’re susceptible to link rot. If one of the sites that hosted all these URLs went down, think of how many broken links it would create! Shortened URLs also disguise the site they’re linking to. It’s great to get quick links on Twitter, but without seeing the actual domain of the site you don’t really know what you’re getting into.

Our answer is this: keep the URLs simple. Each theme has it’s own short forwardslash URL. You’ll find all our main pages where you’d expect them to be. Now thanks to some fancy server side mod_rewrite code, pages that once had long cranky urls are now short and sweet as well. No www and no variable filled addresses.

A clean URL vs the old type.
A clean URL vs the old type.

The idea is that you can look at a URL and know exactly what you’re getting into. While we implemented this technology all over the site, just look at the new gallery for a perfect example. What address would you go to if you just wanted music themes? https://awesomestart.com/gallery/music. What if you want page three of the movie themes? https://awesomestart.com/gallery/movies/3. If you sent someone that URL, they would know exactly what they’re about to see.

On the programming end, it also makes it less obvious what server side technology you’re using. No extensions or variable names means you’re less vulnerable to attack (or even simple URL input error).

We also use some .htaccess forwarding to redirect people who main have guessed the wrong URL. Our developers log is now at https://awesomestart.com/devlog, but anyone accidentally going to /developerslog will be instantly forwarded to the correct address. Our end goal is that no one ever winds up at a 404 page.

The other easy way to tell you’re in the developer’s log is if you’re reading a seven paragraph essay on Clean URL programming. Sorry about that.

AwesomeStart’s 4th Birthday

We love birthdays around here. They’re international in celebration, universally recognized, and generally great excuses to eat cake. We’re also big fans of looking back and seeing how far things have grown. As of today, AwesomeStart has been online a grand total of four years. That’s like twenty-one in internet years, right?

Photo taken by Jessica N Diamond
Photo taken by Jessica N Diamond

This is usually the time of the year we gather ’round to reflect on the still surprising popularity and global reach of the site. This year is a bit different though…everyone’s busy at work on the as-of-yet unannounced “mysterious feature”. Seriously, what the hell is it?

Well, whatever it is, we’re here to report it’s in private beta! What does that mean? It means it’s pretty much done but you still can’t see it. We’re sorry! All we’re waiting on now is our self-selected team of startpage fanatics to get done testing it.

It’s not as good as “here you go!” but it’s certainly better than “coming soon!”

As we say every birthday, AwesomeStart continue to offer everything for free. Yes, even the new mysterious what-not will be free. The best birthday present we could ask for is a mention on your blog, facebook, twitter, etc. Even if it’s as simple as posting what page you use, help us out and tell people about AwesomeStart.com!

Mysterious New Feature!?

Dev 2009-08-16

We’ve been busy at work on a brand new “feature.” It’s not so much a new feature like the previous ones we’ve brought you. Think bigger. We’re not ready to say just what it is yet, but it should permanently fix your thirst for brand new startpages. This has been the top requested idea for over a year. We’re hard at work on the final phase, so this brand new what-is-it should be going up really soon.

Design Policy Update

We recently updated our design policy. Our new policy gives designers full control over their work. They have the freedom to reuse part (or all) of their startpage design in other works and on other websites.

Our old policy stated that “No portion of [a] design may be reused on any other site or publication without written permission from AwesomeStart.com”. This was originally meant to be a blanket statement that saved us the trouble of hammering out more specific details regarding usage. We had always intended to change it, but at the time our lazy design editor thought it would make due.

After several years of accepting submissions, we’ve relaxed our enforcement of that policy to the point where it was really meaningless. When faced with the decision of enforcement, it always made more sense to side with the artist. The designer made the themes, they should get to decide if they want to use that material anywhere else.

Now that most of our search code update is done, we’re back to uploading new themes. We thought this would be the perfect time to revise the submission policy to include stronger artists rights. Under the new policy we keep doing what we’ve always done, but the designers retain the rights to continue using their own work.

We think everyone will be pleased with the changes. We encourage you to try submitting a design! You can read the new policy and guidelines over here.

v3.4 Upgraded Search Function

We’ve taken a lot of user suggestions into consideration over the past few months. Our users are full of ideas; the hard part seems to be figuring out which to listen to first. The general rule of thumb is to let the numbers do the work. When we get a few hundred emails telling us they want an upgraded search function, for instance, we get right now that.

The search technology we use has been upgraded to our partner’s Custom Search Beta. This means a faster, more accurate search. The results page you get from searches on this site will also look much more like a familiar search giant’s results page.

The one downside to this is that domain searching will no longer work. This includes the domain options presented next to the “Search” button on startpages as well as the Amazon option in the drop down box. We’re currently looking at ways to fix that feature. We’ll be bringing it back as soon as possible.

Keep those suggestions coming!

New Features Now Showing Up

You may have noticed some small changes to your startpage in the last week or so. We’ve begun implementation of two highly requested features. Users will now be able to search Images, News, Maps and more directly from the search box on their page. If you use additional technologies (which can be changed in preferences), you can now click on a link to change what you want to search. For instance, if you’d like to search for an image, click “Image” and type in your query. Then search, just like you would have for the web. No more leaving the page first!

In addition to this feature, we’re also including a new drop down menu to give you more search options. It can be accessed by mousing over the small arrow to the right of the Email link. You can now search Amazon and Wikipedia in the same manner described above. Just select one from the drop down menu, type in your search, and away you go. Popular search engine technologies for Video, Books, Scholar, Finance, Shopping, and Blogs are all also available.

These new features are now available on all Movies, TV, Videogame, and “Other” startpages. At the time of writing, they’ve also been added to our twenty most popular movie startpages. Adding the new features requires a complete overhaul of each startpage. We’re recoding each page from HTML to XHTML using a new standard template. While this will make new updates easier to add in the future, it’s certainly a lengthy process. More pages are being updated with these features every day, and we hope to have the rest of the music startpages finished in the coming weeks.

Go try out the new features. Let us know what you think!

Happy Birthday, AwesomeStart!

AwesomeStart is celebrating it’s third birthday! Looking back on DevLog entries, it’s amusing to see how excited we were to have toped 100,000 users on our first birthday. That number has since grow past 1,000,000. Despite the site only being offered in english, we now have users in over a hundred countries around the world. There are countries appearing in our logs we’ve honestly never even heard of!

The DevLog has quieted down ever since the RSS feature was finalized. We’ve been working on a lot of big concepts behind the scenes. The overwhelming interest in the site, from both users as well as designers, is part of the reason these new ideas are such an undertaking. From day one, we’ve underestimated the encouraging amount of support and interest people would have in the site. To put it plainly, it just wasn’t built to scale up to this level of usage. With each new update, we’re working on changing that.

In the mean time, we’ve gotten back to cranking out those themes. This year our gallery finally broke past 400, with the current total (as of this writing) up to 432. This is thanks to our constantly growing team of designers, who’s ranks just passed fifty contributors. We’ve recently seen some of our most requested designs finally come online – it’s great to see everyone working towards bringing their favorites to the site.

As always, we continue to offer everything here for free. The best birthday present we could ask for is a mention on your blog, facebook, myspace, etc. Let people know about AwesomeStart.com!

v3.3 We Have Your Theme

The request system has been the subject of much tweaking in the recent weeks. After some testing, we’re adding another function to the page. One of the basic problems we’ve had since the system went online is that it accepted requests for themes that already exist. This created two real issues…the first is that designers would see these requests and make themes we didn’t need. The other issue is that someone coming to the site hoping to find a theme that we did in fact have would put in a request and leave thinking we didn’t.

By using a bit of the technology already in place in our search feature, we’ve changed the request function to eliminate both of those issues at once. When a request is submitted, the system will check it against our entire database of themes and return any results. If it looks like we already have that theme, it’ll inform the user of the good news and give them a link instead of submitting the request. The system is pretty smart, so it shouldn’t have any problems with slight variations on entries or seeing the difference between a movie theme that exists and a videogame theme of the same name.

Try it out!

Request Page Update

Our request page will not only allow you to make a request, but also to see a list of every request currently in the que. With literally thousands of requests, this list was getting very long! We’ve tweaked the list so that only themes with three or more requests are shown on the page. If a theme has one or two requests, it still stays in our que – it just won’t be displayed on the page. This will cut down on database strain, page load time, and some of the 500 errors we’ve been having. This will also act as an automatic filter for improper requests and input mistakes.

Many of you probably noticed that Halo has been at the top of the request list this week, even though there’s already a halo theme! While we were upgrading our code, we seem to have created a bug that changed every input to a request for Halo. Whoops! As a result of this, the Halo (UK) band may have more requests than they should. We’ve removed the halo videogame from the requests list, and emailed everyone who requested it to let them know we’ve fixed the bug.

New Themes, E3, Analytics

Things are finally starting to get back to normal. We’ve got a few new themes coming in this week. We’re attempting to fill some of the themes that have been at the top of the request list for the last few months. One Tree Hill went up today, and we should have some others later in the week.

We’ll also be putting up some new gaming themes over the next few days. It’s our way of getting excited about E3. A few of the themes have been requested for quite some time, so look out for those too.

Our experimentation with analytics has been going really well. We’re going to continue tracking the new pages, and if all is still well at the end of the month we’ll be implementing the technology on the rest of the site. We’re looking at adding a new feature later this year, but we’re still unsure if we’ll have it done in time to do this all at once.