The Ultimate Guide to Blockchain

Do you remember where you were the first time you heard about bitcoin? I do. The year was 2013. One of my friends briefly mentioned bitcoin while discussing how advancements in technology made it much more challenging to create timely policy. He used bitcoin as an example because it was the currency of choice for Silk Road: the now-defunct drug trafficking website. Just a little over five years ago, bitcoin was primarily used in the dark corners of the internet to purchase illicit goods on the black market. With that knowledge, I pushed bitcoin to a dark corner of my mind … until recently when I saw that the Winklevoss twins had become bitcoin billionaires. Say what?

The price of bitcoin in June 2013? About $100. The price of bitcoin today? $11,392. Yes, I am suffering from an extreme case of FOMO. Thanks for asking.

I bet many of you have your own bitcoin story. Maybe you bought bitcoin early and sold it a few years ago when it started to see marginal success? Maybe you just heard about it a few weeks ago and felt like it’s too late to get in the game? Or maybe you’re just confused by all these headlines about cryptocurrencies, digital mining, and … CryptoKitties? Hey, I get you. My cat is very much alive and very much scratches my new couch.

But what if I told you the biggest opportunity for businesses of any kind is actually related to the technology that underlies bitcoin — known as blockchain. Blockchain, the public ledger that records all bitcoin transactions, is more than just a fad — it’s changing life as we know it.

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Don’t believe me? Follow along to learn more about blockchain and how it works, who’s using it, and the future of the technology. Feel free to email, bookmark, or jump to the section that interests you most.

All About Blockchain

Okay, I know what you’re thinking, this writer’s exaggerating — there’s no way this technology is “changing life as we know it.” While I’ve been known to occasionally have a flair for the dramatic, I promise that this is not one of those times. The uses for blockchain technology extend far beyond bitcoin. But what is blockchain?

These transactions get packaged into blocks, and each block gets verified by other users in the system by completing a math problem. Once a block gets verified, it cannot be altered and gets added to a chain of other permanent, previously verified blocks. The records held within these blocks form a blockchain, and the blockchain’s users all keep track of this record. It’s basically a giant, shared ledger, but in practice, it’s much more exciting than that. 

 Let’s say the hoverboard you bought last year isn’t all it’s cracked up to be — you feel much safer with your feet solidly on the ground. You could use a third-party seller like eBay to sell it. These sellers act as the marketplace that connects you (the seller) to potential buyers; they make money by charging fees. In this case, let’s pretend the buyer is from Germany. When you make a sale on eBay, the platform verifies the transaction with your bank and the purchaser’s bank. It also confirms your hoverboard and the end buyer both exist. But if you use blockchain technology to sell your hoverboard, you can cut out all the middlemen while still maintaining a safe, speedy, and secure transaction — even internationally. No eBay, no banks, no fees, and no exchange rate — it’s that easy. Now, some lucky kid in Germany can hover around with all their friends … or whatever it is you do on hoverboards.

History of Blockchain 

Before we dive into exactly how blockchain makes this possible, let’s talk about the history of blockchain. In October 2008, the secretive founder of bitcoin Satoshi Nakamoto introduced the world to peer-to-peer electronic payments. His cryptocurrency formed the world’s first blockchain. Because bitcoin’s software is open source, allowing anyone to see, reuse, and adapt the code behind it, it didn’t take long before users started modifying it for different purposes.

Early on, blockchain users mostly tried to make better versions of bitcoin. Litecoin, an alternative cryptocurrency developed by a former Google employee, aimed to provide faster transactions. Others, like the meme-inspired Dogecoin, were created for people turned off by bitcoin’s high price point.

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Namecoin.org developed one of the first uses of blockchain for something other than cryptocurrencies. The technology uses blockchain to register .bit domain names as an alternative to the primary domain name management system. Namecoin makes it extremely difficult for external players, like the government, to take control of websites. Because .bit domains get registered in a blockchain, they are nearly impossible to change without knowing the encryption key.

The next significant innovation came in 2013 when a small startup named Ethereum put out a paper outlining a way for developers to easily create entirely new blockchains without relying on bitcoin’s original code. Two years later, Ethereum launched their new platform, allowing users to expand blockchain’s functionality beyond cryptocurrencies.

Currently, companies and individuals are exploring how to use blockchain technology in healthcare, energy, supply chain management, and many other industries. But more on that later.

How Does Blockchain Work?

Although there are different ways to set up a blockchain, Harvard Business Review laid out five principles that all blockchains have in common. Firstly, all blockchains use a distributed database — this means that every user in a blockchain can access the complete database, including its past transaction history. This transparency allows users to verify any information they need and to complete transactions directly, without any intermediaries.

Secondly, any transactions or communications get conducted between peers. Each user stores records and sends information directly to all other parties in a blockchain. Because of this technology, intermediaries and central storage institutions, like banks, are unnecessary. Users have all the information they need to vet other users, otherwise known as nodes.

Third, although blockchains are transparent, each user associated with a blockchain can remain anonymous. To protect users’ identities, each user has their own unique “30-plus-character alphanumeric address” that they use in place of a name. Users can choose to share their identity or remain anonymous with their blockchain address.

The alphanumeric addresses are also used to verify transactions. You may have heard the term “mining” associated with bitcoin. When someone “mines” bitcoin they aren’t digging around in the earth in search of a bitcoin filled hard drive … except for that one time. Rather, here’s how mining actually works: When someone wants to make a transaction, and therefore add new record or “block” to the ledger, they first need to solve what is essentially a math problem. Computers use their computing power to “mine” for the answer, which is vetted by the network of users. If the answer is correct, the new block is added to the ledger. A token, also known as a coin, is generated when this occurs —almost like a receipt to prove it happened.

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Fourth, because blockchain uses a digital ledger, the entire transactional process can be automated using algorithms. For example, when you buy a house, you pay for a lot of other small costs like title registration, mortgage lenders, inspections, and legal fees. There are all these other people involved to provide access, regulate, and administer a sale from one person to another. But a lot of this complexity disappears with blockchain. You can record property data and even build in digital rules — called smart contracts — that, once fulfilled, allow the system to automatically transfer a property title or money for purchase.

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The fifth characteristic of blockchain is that, once a record gets created, it cannot change. When miners verify a transaction, that record is shared with every other party in the blockchain as part of the decentralized ledger. Part of each verified transaction is also used to generate the math puzzle for the next block in the chain. This means each transaction gets linked to the ones that came before it and all those transactions get stored across multiple computers with no single point of failure.

Blockchains can also be public or private. Both types of networks share the five characteristics listed here but have one major difference. A public blockchain is open to the general public and anyone can join, execute and verify transactions, and everyone maintains a copy of the decentralized ledger. The bitcoin blockchain is currently one of the largest examples of a public blockchain network. In a private blockchain, participation is limited to users who receive an invitation to join the network and are granted permission to enter. Think of it like the early days of Facebook when users needed email addresses from certain schools. Aside from the increased security offered by private blockchains, they are also much more cost efficient since much less computing power is required to verify transactions in a smaller network.

Still confused? I don’t blame you. Here are some talking points on how blockchain works for your next cocktail party.

  1. Blockchains are completely transparent. Any user can view any transaction from now until the end of time.
  2. All transactions get completed between individual users. Say goodbye to intermediaries.
  3. Even though blockchains are transparent, a user’s identity doesn’t have to be. All users are assigned a public address to use in place of a name during transactions.
  4. Because blockchains live online, we can use algorithms to automate future transactions — just like you automatically pay your Netflix subscription every month.
  5. Once a block gets added to a blockchain, it’s there forever — no ifs, ands, or buts.

Got it? Let’s move on.

Benefits of Blockchain

If you’ve stuck with me this far, congratulations are in order! Blockchainis complicated stuff. You may be thinking, if blockchain is basically just a new way to organize records, why are people so excited about it? Don’t worry! This is the part of the article where we talk about the benefits of blockchain and how it has the potential to change the world.

Blockchain Security 

One of the largest benefits of blockchain is its ultra-secure network. Because data transmitted using blockchain is inherently encrypted, it’s much more secure than the standard username-password security system. However, the real security benefits come from blockchain’s network of users.

Decentralized data stored using blockchain makes it extremely difficult to hack into because no “single point of failure” exists. What does all this mean? Let’s say you have all your documents backed up on a single hard drive. If that hard drive is lost, stolen, or destroyed, all of your documents are gone … forever. But if all your documents are saved on thousands of different hard drives, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever lose your data. That’s the power of blockchain security.

Under usual circumstances, to break into a blockchain, hackers would need to overwhelm over 50% of the network in less time than it takes to create a new block. The amount of computing power required to do this in most blockchain networks is tremendous. Larger networks are much harder to hack because they are more decentralized and have more computers working to verify transactions.

And it’s easy to detect when a block has been tampered with thanks to hash functions. Hashes from one block are added to the data in the next block. Anyone who tries to alter a block will end up changing the hash completely, setting off a red flag and disabling the block completely.

Blockchain also offers anonymity. Without blockchain, systems use a variety of information like names, addresses, card numbers, and social security numbers to verify transactions. All this personal information is vulnerable to being stolen. In a blockchain, only the private key matters.

Each blockchain user has two keys: a public key and a private key. Their public key is derived from their private key using a mathematical formula and then combined with other information to form their public address for transactions. Without the private key, it is impossible to verify transactions to the public address. This private key never gets shared with outsiders which means multiple complex formulas stand between a user’s private key and their public address.

You may be wondering if it’s possible to reverse the formula and uncover someone’s private key from their public key? The bad news is that it is possible. The good news is it would take the world’s most powerful computer 40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (I don’t even know how to pronounce this number) years to figure it out. That’s way longer than the universe has even existed … so I wouldn’t worry about it.

Decentralization and Smart Contracts

The second benefit of blockchain comes from decentralization and smart contracts. Presently, smart contracts may represent the most powerful application for blockchain.

HubSpot’s Director of Acquisition and resident blockchain expert Matthew Howells-Barby states: “One of the more immediate ways in which blockchain technology is going to impact SMBs is through smart contracts. Smart contracts facilitate the creation of trustless digital contracts that can be used for all kinds of application – something that has never been possible before without a third party being involved. Imagine being able to create digital contracts with contractors that would automatically pay them once work has been completed to a satisfactory standard. This is one of the many applications that smart contracts offer.”

Essentially, smart contracts use blockchain to automate payments and transfers based on a predetermined set of conditions. Using smart contracts, you could automatically pay your electric bill once your electricity usage hits a certain amount. The transaction would be sent securely to the power company and verified using blockchain. No more late fees, no more stolen financial information — you would never have to think about scheduling a payment again.

Once again, as more and more transactions are automated using smart contracts, the need for middlemen and outside organizations will diminish. Because information gets distributed across the entire network, it’s extremely difficult for one group to seize control of it. Governments and individuals in positions of power will no longer be able to shut down sources they wish to repress because the information will exist on many computers across the network.

Speed and Efficiency

Third, blockchain is fast and efficient. Manual data entry is tedious and prone to error. Think about it. How many typos do you typically make writing an email? Most organizations maintain multiple record systems for different tasks. For example, an ice cream store may use one record to track the amount of ice cream and supplies they purchase, another to track hours their employees work, and another to track sales. Reviewing separate records takes up a lot of time. With blockchain, all this information gets stored and verified as it gets generated.

Blockchain’s verification speed has vast benefits. For example, a simple stock purchase can take up to a week to verify using current methods. Several forms, organizations, and a ridiculous amount of acronyms are involved in the process. With blockchain, there is no need for third-party verification because all the information needed to complete and verify the transaction gets included in the ledger. That means stock transfers can happen almost instantaneously instead of a full week later. Talk about some serious returns!

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Applications of Blockchain

Okay, so we’ve talked about what blockchain is, how it works, and the benefits of using it, but is anyone actually using this technology? Like really using it … not just for trying to get bitcoin rich? The answer is an enthusiastic yes!

According to Financial Times reporter Sally Davies, “[Blockchain] is to bitcoin, what the internet is to email. A big electronic system, on top of which you can build applications. Currency is just one.”

In simple terms, bitcoin is only one, tiny application supported by blockchain — there are endless possibilities for the technology. Let’s do a deeper dive on some other applications of blockchain.

FinTech

Payments and Cryptocurrencies

Let’s just get this out of the way — cryptocurrencies are indeed one of the most popular blockchain applications. I know, I know, I said I was going to talk about other applications of blockchain. I promise I will, but it’s impossible to talk about blockchain without taking a look at the application it was originally built for — bitcoin.

Partially because it was the first one and partially because it has the largest network of users, bitcoin is the most valuable cryptocurrency based on U.S. dollars. In fact, bitcoin has become so popular that stores, restaurants, and even bars are starting to accept it as payment. In larger cities like New York, you can live your life only paying in bitcoin, though it isn’t always the most practical approach. Bitcoin has also been used to cope with hyperinflation in Venezuela, as payment for online gambling, and for market speculation.

Because bitcoins trade on an open market, investors like the Winklevoss twins were able to make bets on future price movements. It’s impossible to know for sure, but it’s estimated that there were over 20,000 bitcoin millionaires at the start of 2018. But before you go investing in bitcoin, don’t forget that the cryptocurrency is also infamous for its massive price swings. Many lost fortunes speculating on the currency to the tune of $86.7 billion this year alone.

Other cryptocurrencies like RippleLitecoin, and Ethereum can also be used to send payments or for market speculation, but these cryptocurrencies have their quirks. Ripple is positioned to speed up international transactions and reduce transaction fees. The four seconds it takes Ripple to settle a transaction is faster than any other cryptocurrency and significantly faster than the expensive, multi-day process currently in use by most banks. For this reason, companies like American Express and Santander Bank have started experimenting with Ripple for international transactions.

Litecoin is also useful for payments but is focused more on the everyday stuff than on purchases across borders. According to its founder Charlie Lee“Litecoin is targeted more towards payments, faster transactions, and lower fees.”

The supply of Litecoins is four times larger than bitcoin and transactions also occur four times faster.

Then there’s Ethereum and its cryptocurrency Ether. The smart contracts built into Ethereum’s code allow for a wide range of deals to occur automatically once pre-negotiated terms get met. This is a major stepping stone for using blockchain in industries outside of FinTech.

Trade

These cryptocurrencies and, more importantly, the blockchain behind them will have a tremendous impact on trade. Faster verification times, reduction or removal of exchange fees, and elimination of errors will make domestic and international trade easier than ever before. By implementing blockchain within their internal financing unit, IBM was able to free up $100 million previously tied up in disputes. Imagine how much more could get done by using blockchain for the trillions of dollars in transactions that occur every day in the U.S. financial system alone.

Crowdfunding

Outside the worlds of insurance and international trade, blockchain will also create massive changes in the way businesses and startups raise capital. Sites like Kickstarter, founded in 2009, democratized fundraising by allowing just about anyone to find financial backing from a broad audience instead of traditional sources like banks and venture capital funds. There’s also a built-in insurance policy since payment only gets collected for projects that meet their funding goal. For this service and for connecting entrepreneurs to potential funders, Kickstarter charges a 5% fee. To date, the platform has raised over $3.4 billion in funds for various projects.

With blockchain, these fees get eliminated since a network allows for immediate verification and smart contracts allow transactions to take place only once a project is fully funded. Some artists and startups are already experimenting with blockchain crowdfunding in the form of ICOs or initial coin offerings. The virtual coins function the same way as bitcoin, and investors purchase these coins like shares of stock to invest in the business that offers them. However, unlike in the stock market, purchasing these coins does not mean a user purchased ownership rights — this makes ICOs an extremely risky investment.

Property and Identity

There are few things more important than protecting your identity and property records. Birth, marriage, and death certificates allow you to claim a variety of different rights, including citizenship, employment rights, and voting rights. Pretty important stuff, right?

But in many countries, personal and government records still exist only on paper. During the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, most of the country’s paper land registry files were destroyed, so there’s no way to know who owns what. This has opened the door for corruption and further loss. In the future, blockchain will provide stability during uncertainty.

In addition to being a digital fail-safe for important documents, blockchain is also an extremely secure identity management system. Think about how often you provide personal or financial information over the internet. Once a week? Once a day? Two hours ago when you bought those new boots during your lunch break? Hey, no judgment – I’m just looking out for your financial security.

Being able to accurately verify your identity is essential to all online transactions, but the data you provide can be vulnerable to attacks. Blockchain’s decentralized ledger and unique user addresses make it difficult for hackers to obtain your sensitive information.

Supply Chain

Thanks to smart contracts, many retailers are using blockchain to help simplify their supply chain processes. In early 2017, Maersk, one of the world’s largest container shipment operators, joined forces with IBM to create a digital blockchain-based supply chain system. The goal: To create a faster and more secure and cost-effective way to trade goods internationally. IBM stated, “The costs associated with trade documentation processing and administration are estimated to be up to one-fifth the actual physical transportation costs. A single vessel can carry thousands of shipments, and on top of the costs to move the paperwork, the documentation to support it can be delayed, lost or misplaced, leading to further complications.” Talk about a logistical nightmare.

With blockchain, all parties involved in the supply chain can access any necessary documents and view transportation events in real time. All of the supply chain information is accurate and secure because no individual party can alter the blockchain without permission from others in the network. This transparency helps reduce shipment time, money, fraud, and errors — getting consumers the goods they need from around the world.

Healthcare

Healthcare – yeah, it’s complicated. It’s so complicated and confusing that I often find myself skipping the doctors just to avoid the massive amount of paperwork and stress that comes along with visiting the office. Don’t look at the screen like that – I know you’ve done it too.

Thankfully, blockchain is here to save the day, aka our lives, or at least make them easier. Blockchain technology allows patients, insurers, and physicians to view and update medical records in a secure and timely fashion. This access to data can also help doctors recognize early indicators of disease or weakening health. According to a study from IBM, “healthcare organizations are moving fast and even seem to have a lead on the financial industry.”

Beyond just, you know, saving lives, blockchain can also help in other areas like reducing Medicare fraud, which cost over $30 million in 2016 and centralizing information from wide-reaching medical studies into a comprehensive database. Blockchain even makes it possible to pay for procedures based on outcomes instead of predetermined rates. In fact, Robomed Network is already using blockchain to do this for over 9,000 patients.

Energy

Once energy enters into an electric grid, it’s impossible to tell if it got generated by a fossil fuel plant, nuclear power, or a renewable energy plant. To track the amount of energy coming from renewable sources, power plants use a complex, expensive system.

Cutting out intermediaries, reducing errors, and building a decentralized record for the sources of renewable energy with blockchain would remove many of these barriers. But it doesn’t end there. Over the last several years, a new distributed grid has grown in size. This grid is comprised of solar panels on the roofs of homes and batteries from electric cars. When these systems produce more energy than they need, their owners can sell the excess power back to the power company, but it can take several months to see returns. LO3 Energy has begun experimenting with a blockchain powered microgrid in Brooklyn that lets users sell their excess energy to their neighbors. Because it’s easier to distribute electricity locally than to send it over long distances, decentralized blockchain microgrids could help prevent power outages and maximize energy use from distributed producers.

Investing in Blockchain

By now you’re probably thinking one of two things: Wow, blockchain is going to change my life or … I still don’t get it. That’s okay! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, blockchain is a tough topic to grasp, and it’ll likely be many years before the technology is widely adopted. Small- and medium-sized businesses should wait for blockchain technology to mature before worrying about how to adopt. However, there are some ways they can start experimenting with blockchain applications. In this section, we’ll walk through how businesses can start investing in blockchain in a smart, deliberate way.

According to Harvard Business Review, there are two factors to consider when thinking about how quickly new technology will impact a business: novelty and complexity. Novelty represents users’ familiarity with the application. The more novel or unfamiliar the technology is, the longer it’ll take to become commonplace. Complexity is the number of people needed to adopt an application for it to have impact. For example, a dating app is useless unless a lot of people create profiles. How annoying would it be to swipe left on on Chad 17 times before coming across an intriguing profile?

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These two criteria help inform executives of the roadblocks they might face and the effort needed to implement a specific blockchain application. Take a look at the chart above. Businesses that are looking for a low barrier to entry should consider implementing single-use cases of blockchain. Single-use cases have a low degree of novelty and complexity. So what exactly is a single-use case? Accepting bitcoin payments. HBR states, “… bitcoin is growing fast and increasingly important in contexts such as instant payments and foreign currency and asset trading, where the present financial system has limitations.” Accepting cryptocurrencies as a form of payment makes it easier for customers all over the world to quickly and securely purchase your products.

If you start accepting bitcoin as alternative payment, your business could then start experimenting with a blockchain application that is increasingly novel but still has a low level of complexity — a private blockchain ledger to record all transactions. Once you have a good handle on these more simple applications, consider using more complex blockchain applications like smart contracts. The possibilities for how blockchain can help improve business processes are endless — it’s just a matter of how much effort and money you want to invest in an application right away.

Conclusion: The Future of Blockchain

That was a lot. And it’s okay if you don’t understand all of the intricacies of blockchain or aren’t ready to start incorporating it into your business strategy just yet. It’ll take many years and buy-in from numerous different industries before blockchain becomes commonplace. And while we don’t recommend SMBs worry too much about blockchain just yet, it’s important to keep an eye on the emerging tech as larger enterprise businesses start developing more blockchain applications.

So the next time you find yourself sinking into a deep hole of depression because you didn’t scoop up bitcoin while the iron was hot, remember the most rewarding technology — blockchain — is still to reach its full potential.

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How to Combine PDF Files for Free

Combining PDF files usually requires the purchase or download of a decent PDF reader. But when you need to quickly merge your files, and don’t have an advanced enough PDF reader on your computer, there’s a more efficient way of combining your files than buying and downloading software. There are free PDF merging tools online that let you merge your files with any device and operating system. We’ll list some of the best available below.

8 Online Tools that Can Merge PDF Files for Free

1. Combine PDF

Combine PDF lets you upload PDF and image files from your computer, Google Drive, or Dropbox, adjust their order, and download them as a single PDF document.

2. Sejda

Sedja lets you upload PDF and image files from your computer, Google Drive, and Dropbox, reorder them in any way you want, generate a table of contents, merge them into one PDF document, and save your document to Dropbox.

You can even scan physical documents with your phone, email them to Sejda, and they’ll merge and send your combined PDF document to you in a matter of seconds.

3. PDF2GO

PDF2GO lets you drag and drop PDFs, documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and images from your computer, Google Drive, Dropbox, and even the internet. You can also adjust the order of your files before you merge them into a single PDF document.

4. PDF Joiner

PDF Joiner lets you drag and drop up to 20 PDF and image files into its uploader, arrange their order, and merge them into one PDF document.

5. DocuPub

DocuPub lets you merge PDFs, documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and images from your computer into one PDF document. Just make sure you upload them in your preferred order before you download your merged document.

6. SmallPDF

Small PDF lets you drag and drop your PDF files from your computer, Google Drive, or Dropbox into its uploader, rearrange their order, and merge them into a single PDF document. They also permanently deletes your files from their servers within an hour of upload to protect your privacy.

7. Soda PDF

Soda PDF lets you upload PDF files from your computer, Google Drive, or Dropbox, adjust the order of your files, and download the merged file onto your computer or send it to your email address.

8. Hipdf

Hipdf lets you drag and drop PDF files from your computer, Google Drive, Dropbox, Microsoft Online, and Box into its uploader and arrange their order in any way you want. Their servers will also permanently delete your files within an hour of upload to maximize your security.

9 Breadcrumb Tips and Examples to Make Your Site Way Easier to Navigate

In the fairytale Hansel and Gretel, two children drop breadcrumbs in the woods to find their way home.

Nowadays, you probably don’t experience too many lost-in-the-wood experiences, but I’m willing to bet you’ve felt frustratingly disoriented on poorly designed websites.

In website design, breadcrumb navigation is a way to show your users their location and how they got there (similar to Hansel’s breadcrumbs). It also helps users find higher-level pages faster if they landed on your site from search or a deep link.

Jakob Nielsen, co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, has been recommending breadcrumb navigation since 1995, and makes a strong point for them: “All that breadcrumbs do is make it easier for users to move around the site, assuming its content and overall structure make sense. That’s sufficient contribution for something that takes up only one line in the design.”

If your business’s website is multi-layered, you might consider implementing breadcrumb navigation to make your site easier to navigate. However, like any design element, there’s a right and wrong way of doing it. Here, we’ll explore nine tips and examples to ensure you’re creating the most effective breadcrumb navigation for your users.

Breadcrumb Navigation Tips and Examples

1. Only use breadcrumb navigation if it makes sense for your site’s structure.

Breadcrumb navigation has a linear structure, so you only want to use it if it makes sense with your website’s hierarchy. If you have lower-level pages that are accessible from different landing pages, using breadcrumb navigation will only confuse readers who keep accessing the same pages from different starting points. Additionally, if your site is relatively simple, with only a few pages, you probably don’t need breadcrumb navigation.

2. Don’t make your breadcrumb navigation too large.

Your breadcrumb navigation is a secondary tool to your primary navigation bar, so it shouldn’t be too large or prominent on the page. For instance, on DHL’s website, their primary navigation bar is large and recognizable, with columns like “Express” “Parcel & eCommerce” “Logistics”, etc. Their breadcrumb navigation is the smaller section below that reads, “DHL Global | > Logistics | > Freight Transportation”. You don’t want your users to mistake your breadcrumb navigation as the primary navigation bar.

3. Include the full navigational path in your breadcrumb navigation.

I Googled “Elon University Non-Degree Students” to reach this landing page, but Elon is smart to include the full navigational path, including “Home” and “Admissions”. If you leave out certain levels, you’ll confuse users and the breadcrumb path won’t feel as helpful. Even if users didn’t begin on the homepage, you want to give them an easy way to explore your site from the beginning.

4. Progress from highest level to lowest.

It’s important your breadcrumb navigation reads left to right, with the closest link to the left being your homepage, and the closest link to the right being the user’s current page. A study by Nielsen Norman Group found users spend 80% of their time viewing the left half of a page and 20% viewing the right half, making a strong case for left-to-right design. Plus, the link closest to the left will appear as the beginning of the chain, so you want it to be your highest-level page.

5. Keep your breadcrumb titles consistent with your page titles.

To avoid confusion, you’ll want to remain consistent with your page and breadcrumb titles, particularly if you’re targeting certain keywords in those titles. You also want to clearly link your breadcrumb titles to the page. If the breadcrumb title doesn’t have a link, make it clear. Nestle effectively labels its breadcrumb titles to match the page titles. “Areas of impact & commitment”, for instance, reads the same in the breadcrumb navigation as it does on the page.

Nestle also does a good job differentiating links from non-links with different colors — the links are blue, while the non-links remain gray.

6. Get creative with design.

The traditional breadcrumb navigation looks like this: Home > About Us > Careers. However, you don’t need to follow the traditional path if you feel a different design could appeal more to your audience, or look better on your site.

For instance, Target uses breadcrumb navigation in their product pages (because who wouldn’t get lost in the virtual shoe section?), but uses “/” symbols and simple black and grey text. In this case, the subtle design variation makes sense for their site’s aesthetic.

7. Keep it clean and uncluttered.

Your breadcrumb navigation is simply an aid for the user, and ideally shouldn’t be noticed unless the user is looking for it. For this reason, you don’t want to clutter your breadcrumb navigation with unnecessary text.

Eionet, for instance, could do without their “You are here” text. While meant to be helpful, the text clutters the page. With the right design, a breadcrumb navigation should be noticeable enough without an introduction.

8. Consider which type of breadcrumb navigation makes the most sense for your site.

There are a few different types of breadcrumbs you might use — location-based, attribute-based, and history-based. Location-based breadcrumbs show the user where they are in the site’s hierarchy. Attribute-based breadcrumbs show users which category their page falls into. Finally, history-based breadcrumbs show users the specific path they took to arrive at the current page.

Bed Bath & Beyond uses attribute-based breadcrumb navigation to show users which category their product page falls under, so users can click back to “Kitchen” or “Small Appliances” to peruse similar items. This type of breadcrumb navigation is most effective for Bed Bath & Beyond customers. When you’re creating a breadcrumb navigation, consider what’s most useful for your site’s visitors.

9. Know your audience.

Best practices in breadcrumb navigation urge web designers to place the navigation at the top of the page — but Apple, one of the most valuable companies of all time, defies this logic by putting their breadcrumb navigation at the bottom of their site. Ultimately, it’s critical you know your audience. Apple’s customers are typically tech-savvy, and would likely find the navigation if they needed it. Consider your customers’ needs, and implement A/B testing if you’re unsure.

Ultimately, breadcrumb navigation is an effective tool to make your site easier to navigate, but you want to follow design best practices to ensure you’re leveraging the tool’s helpfulness. For additional UX advice, check out “The Ultimate Guide to UX Design“. 

9 VR Marketing Examples That You’ll Want to Steal for 2019

I won’t lecture you on the importance of incorporating virtual reality (VR) into your marketing strategy.

What I will do, however, is share a few fun facts about VR and show you nine examples of this technology used for marketing a product or a brand.

  • By 2020, the economic impact of virtual and augmented reality is predicted to reach $29.5 billion.
  • By the end of 2017, the number of shipped units of VR software and hardware from Sony, Oculus, HTC, and others totaled $2.4 million, up from $1.7 million in 2016.
  • By 2020, the number of VR headsets sold is predicted to reach 82 million — a 1,507% increase from 2017 predicted totals.

VR is being adopted quickly, and adding it to your marketing channels is something you should definitely think about for the coming year.

What Is VR?

VR, short for virtual reality, is a form of interactive software that immerses users in a three-dimensional environment — usually by way of a headset with special lenses — to simulate a real experience. Ideally, VR allows people to simulate the experience in 360 degrees.

Numerous industries are now finding uses for VR in order to transport people to places they might otherwise have to travel to, or simply imagine. While movie companies, for example, are giving audiences the opportunity to experience the movie as if they’re a character in the scene, conventional businesses are now using VR to demonstrate and promote their products to potential customers.

Before we dive into some of the businesses that have found success injecting their marketing with a dose of VR, it’s worth noting that virtual reality has a few key differences from another term you might’ve heard before: augmented reality. Find out what these differences are in the video below.

Click here to take inspiration from the most remarkable marketing and ad  campaigns we've ever seen.

Seeking inspiration for your own VR marketing campaign? Look no further. Below are nine of our favorite VR marketing campaigns and how they served the company’s marketing strategy.

1. Key Technology: VERYX Food Sorting

Key Technology, a manufacturer and designer of food processing systems, created a Virtual Reality demo that would allow attendees of the Pack Expo food packaging trade show to experience a detailed, hands-on look at how the company’s VERYX digital food sorting platform works. It was part of a comprehensive B2B campaign to grow brand awareness among a target audience of food manufacturers, and VR gave participants a highly unique look at what exactly the process looks like inside of the machine.

While this 360-degree video doesn’t completely replicate the experience, it does indicate the differentiating way brands within such B2B industries as manufacturing can leverage VR to immersively demonstrate their sophisticated technologies and capabilities.

2. Defy Ventures and Within: Step To The Line

When my colleague attended Oculus Connect in October, the most memorable experience for her was, by far, the event’s VR For Good exhibit: a showcase of creative work that used Oculus and VR technology for social- and mission-focused ventures.

One such example of that work was Step To The Line: A short film (that was immersively viewed on a VR headset) documenting the lives of inmates at California maximum-security prisons. It was created by Within, a VR storytelling production company, in partnership with Defy Ventures, an entrepreneurship and development program for men, women, and youth who are currently or were formerly incarcerated.

With this unique watching experience, viewers were able to uniquely see what life is like within the walls of these correctional facilities, from the yard, to the cells, to the conversations that take place there.

3. Limbic Life: Project VITALICS

For far too many people, injuries, age, and disease can diminish mobility and equilibrium to the point where walking ranges from extremely painful to nearly impossible.

That’s why the folks at Limbic Life created the Limbic Chair, in partnership with the VITALICS research being conducted by RehaClinic. Pairing this special chair with a Gear VR headset allows users to more intuitively move their bodies (thanks to the chair’s combined neuroscience-based and ergonomic design) while virtually experiencing day-to-day experiences with a rehabilitative use of their hands and legs.

While the research is still underway and no definitive conclusions have been drawn, my coworker had the opportunity to use the chair at the 2017 Samsung Developer Conference and speak with the chair’s creator, Dr. Patrik Künzler.

“Patients enjoy being in the chair and the freedom of movement it allows. They enjoy VR a lot, especially the flying games,” he told Samsung Business Insights. And not only can the VR technology help them physically heal, but it also contributes to emotional rehabilitation.

“When they get up from the chair,” Künzler said, “they’re in a good mood and feel happy.”

Learn more about the conceptualization behind the Limbic Chair from Künzler’s TEDxZurich talk below.

4. Lowe’s: Holoroom How To

Anyone who’s gone through the existential angst of being a first-time buyer knows the unfathomable power of paperwork and finances to undermine the fun of designing or decorating a new home.

That is, until you walk into one of 19 Lowe’s stores that features the Holoroom How To VR experience.

Some homeowners are lucky enough to pay a professional to renovate their home when it needs to be. For others — Lowe’s core buyer — the next stop is the world of do-it-yourself (DIY) home improvement, which comes with its own hefty dose of stress.

That’s why Lowe’s decided to step in and help out homeowners — or recreational DIY enthusiasts — with a virtual skills-training clinic that uses HTC Vive headsets that guides participants through a visual, educational experience on the how-to of home improvement.

5. Boursin: The Sensorium

One of my colleagues recently pledged to give up dairy — okay, 48 hours ago — and she already claims to miss cheese, a lot.

You can imagine her happiness, then, when she discovered that the cheese brand Boursin once created a VR experience to take users on a multi-sensory journey through a refrigerator to shed light on its products’ flavor profiles, food pairings, and recipe ideas.

The goal: to raise awareness among U.K. consumers of Boursin’s distinct taste and product selection.

While the VR installment was part of a live experiential marketing campaign, the rest of us can get a taste — pun intended — of the virtual experience via this YouTube video.

6. Adidas: Delicatessen

In 2017, Adidas partnered with Somewhere Else, an emerging tech marketing agency, to follow the mountain-climbing journey of two extreme athletes sponsored by TERREX (a division of Adidas).

And what good is mountain climbing to an audience if you can’t give them a 360-degree view of the journey?

Viewers were able to follow the climbers, Ben Rueck and Delaney Miller, literally rock for rock and climb along with them. You heard that right — Using a VR headset and holding two sensory remote controls in each hand, viewers could actually scale the mountain of Delicatessen right alongside Rueck and Miller.

This VR campaign, according to Somewhere Else, served to “find an unforgettable way to market TERREX, [Adidas’s] line of outdoor apparel & accessories.” What the company also did, however, was introduce viewers to an activity they might have never tried otherwise. Instill an interest in the experience first, and the product is suddenly more appealing to the user.

Check out the campaign’s trailer below.

7. Toms: Virtual Giving Trip

Toms, a popular shoe company, is well known for donating one pair of shoes to a child in need every time a customer buys their own pair. Well, this charitable developer found a new way to inspire its customers to give — wearing a VR headset.

The Toms Virtual Giving Trip is narrated by Blake Mycoskie, the founder and Chief Shoe Giver of Toms, and one of his colleagues.

As they describe the story of Toms’ founding, their VR experience takes viewers on a trip through Peru, where Blake and the shoe-giving team visit a school of children who are about to receive the shoes they need for the first time.

What Toms’ VR campaign does so well is something cause-driven organizations all over the world struggle to do: Show donors exactly where their money is going. Even without a VR headset, the video below gives you an experience that’s intimate enough to put Toms on your list for your next shoe purchase.

8. DP World: Caucedo Facilities Tour

DP World is a global trade company that helps businesses transport goods around the world. As the company opens new terminals, however, they need a way to show their customers what DP World’s property has to offer.

DP World’s recently opened Caucedo facility in the Dominican Republic is just one of several DP World properties that uses VR to promote its large and often mysterious ships and land masses as they suddenly appear in a community.

Is trade logistics a sexy industry? Not to everyone. But that’s exactly why a 360-degree tour of DP World’s terminal is so valuable here. Show people just how efficient, safe, and crucial these properties are to certain businesses — without making them put on a hardhat and walk through the port itself — and you can gain massive community support.

9. TopShop: Catwalk VR Experience

Just because you couldn’t attend TopShop’s fashion show during London’s Fashion Week doesn’t mean you couldn’t still “be there.”

TopShop, a women’s fashion retailer, partnered with Inition, an emerging tech agency, to give customers a “virtual” seat of their fashion show by wearing a VR headset connected to the event as it was happening.

The groundbreaking campaign put viewers right next to the fashion runway and the seats of the celebrities who were attending. Talk about making sure your brand is inclusive …

Check out the video below, recapping the experience.

Want to see how other emerging technologies will impact your marketing? Check out A Practical Approach to Emerging Tech for SMBs: AI, Blockchain, Cryptocurrencies, IoT, and AR/VR.

marketing

Catch Up with the latest Inbound 18 HubSpot Announcements and Trends at the next Toronto HUG Event

Join us – Thursday, September 27th at 5:30pm, at our Fall Toronto HUG Meet-up, where we are sharing the new product round-up on the major HubSpot product announcements and trends made at this year’s Inbound 18 conference in Boston!

The Toronto HubSpot User Group HUG is one of  hundreds  of HUGs run by volunteers in cities around the world.

The Toronto / Southern Ontario HUG is led by David Terry (CEO of The Brit Agency), and features top HubSpot HQ guest speakers, and an opportunity to network with like-minded Inbound Marketers and users of the HubSpot platform.

We have free quarterly meetups in downtown Toronto, in a professional environment, and anyone is welcome to attend.

Sign Up For The HUB On September 27th

10 Marketing Tools to Help You Succeed at Digital Marketing

Desktop computer with an Online Marketing form displayed.As a digital marketing agency, we manage multiple client accounts at a time. However, digital marketing can be time consuming. It takes a lot to monitor accounts, implement tactics and strategies, measure results, and adapt strategies with new ideas to make sure they’re working.

If that sounds like a lot, you’re right!  

How on earth do we continuously do all that for all our client accounts?

We use marketing tools. In fact, we could not exist without them. Marketing tools make it possible to manage multiple marketing campaigns at once without spending all our time in front of a computer screen (hey, we’ve got lives, too!) and without sacrificing any potential ROI.

Do you want to run a successful digital marketing strategy without devoting your entire life to the process? You have options: you can partner with us, or, you can take a DIY approach.

If you’re curious what about marketing tools you can use to bolster your own marketing campaign or you want to know a few of our favorites, read on. 

[Non-DIYers can contact us for more information]

1. Google Analytics

First things first, you need to know your website’s analytics. Google Analytics is a completely free tool that you can connect to your website with a tracking pixel or plugin. It tells you how many website visitors you get, your website’s bounce rate, the search terms people type in to get to your website, other links that lead them to your site, and so on and so forth.

This is an essential tool to track data on your website, and it’s used in tracking clicks and conversions in nearly all of your digital advertising, especially with Google AdWords.

2. Buffer

What started out as a simple social scheduler has turned into a huge social media marketing tool. Now Buffer offers social media scheduling, conversation monitoring and engagement, and analytics for your social media performance. This all-in-one tool is one of the more affordable options available and it comes with a team which includes customer support if you ever have any issues.

3. Woobox

Want to put together a quick and easy social media contest? Tools like Woobox are perfect for this. They can easily help you set up a landing page with email entry, rules, copy, and its own individual URL. You can share the landing page over all of your social media pages, send it in your email newsletter, etc. Then Woobox even takes care of picking the winner(s) for you with their random generator. All the hard work, taken care of!

4. Drift

Take even more advantage of your website’s lead generation power with a digital marketing tool like Drift. This plugin allows you to add a chatbox to your website with a bot that automates lead generation and appointment setting. Create options for website visitors to select, including one to set up an initial consultation with your sales team.

5. LeadPages

When running digital marketing campaigns and ads, it’s imperative to take your prospects directly to the information they’re looking for. If you run an ad for a single service, don’t lead them to your full services page or your contact page with no other information about that service.

Instead, use LeadPages to easily create a dedicated landing page with specific information catered to that ad campaign with specialized copy and a contact form all in the same place. LeadPages is a great tool to use because it provides visually appealing templates to get you started and an easy drag-and-drop interface to customize elements of your landing page.

6. OptinMonster

OptinMonster is a tool for increasing leads and email subscribers directly from your website. It allows you to create a pop-up on your site, a slide opt-in as visitors scroll down your page, a signup form in your sidebar or footer, and more. It offers endless methods to get website visitors to see and opt into your email list so you can begin nurturing leads.

Person typing on a mobile phone.7. Zapier

In digital marketing, you’ll be using a number of tools, and to ensure everything stays on track, it’s important that the tools can ‘talk to each other’. Unfortunately, not every tool has that ability pre-built in. That’s where the amazing and endlessly useful tool Zapier comes in to play. If you need two tools to talk to each other, you can use this tool to create “zaps” and connect the two tools in exactly the way you need.

The more you use this tool the more you’ll appreciate the automation and integrations that can help speed up your business processes. You can even create processes you didn’t realize you needed. Definitely count this in on your must-have list.

8. Canva

In every campaign you ever run, you’re always going to need visual assets to accompany it. Canva is a cheap and easy way to create graphics without having to fork over a ton of money for the Adobe Suite. They have preset dimensions for specific social media graphics so you don’t have to keep every dimension in the back of your head. Plus, Canva offers a ton of premade graphics templates to get you started, which is especially helpful for users who may not be design savvy.

There’s a free version available, but you can certainly opt for their pro version to upload brand fonts, colors, and other elements within your account.

9. Typeform

If you ever want to send out a buyer survey, or if you’re conducting a poll, or any other question-asking format for customers, Typeform is hands down one of the best survey softwares out there. Not only is their interface extremely user friendly, but their surveys are beautiful and fun to fill out. Win-win? We think so!

10. Mailchimp

If you’re just getting started with email marketing, Mailchimp is the perfect starter for your business. Although they have limited automations, new and small businesses don’t need to worry about all the bells and whistles yet. Sign up for Mailchimp’s free account (free for up to 2,000 subscribers!) just so you can get started building a list and sending out email newsletters. You can worry about a CRM and automations after a little bit of growth.

 

Do you use any of these tools already? Or does the list make you feel overwhelmed? If so, don’t worry, Connection Model can help. 

Let us set your business on the pathway to success. Whether you’re interested in learning a little bit more about digital marketing or if you need help with marketing campaigns, contact us.

 

How to Improve Your Link Building Outreach Pipeline

Posted by John.Michael123

Link building is probably one of the most challenging pieces of your SEO efforts. Add multiple clients to the mix, and managing the link outreach process gets even tricker. When you’re in the thick of several outreach campaigns, it’s hard to know where to focus your efforts and which tactics will bring you the most return on your time and resources.

Three common questions are critical to understand at any point in your link campaign:

  • Do you need more link prospects?
  • Do you need to revise your email templates?
  • Do you need to follow up with prospects?

Without a proven way to analyze these questions, your link building efforts won’t be as efficient as they could be.

We put together a Google Sheets template to help you better manage your link building campaigns. The beauty of this template is that it allows for customization to better fit your workflow. You’ll want to make a copy to get started with your own version.

Our link building workflow

We’ve been able to improve our efficiency via this template by following a simple workflow around acquiring new guest posts on industry-relevant websites. The first step is to actually go out and find prospects that could be potentially interested in a guest blog post. We will then record those opportunities into our template so that we can track our efforts and identify any area that isn’t performing well.

The next step is to make sure to update the status of the prospect when anything changes like sending an outreach email to the prospect or getting a reply from them. It’s critical to keep the spreadsheet as up to date as possible so that we have an accurate picture of our performance.

Once you’ve used this template for enough time and you’ve gathered enough data, you’ll be able to predict how many link prospects you’ll need to find in order to acquire each link based on your own response and conversion rates. This can be useful if you have specific goals around acquiring a certain number of links per month, as you’ll get a better feel for how much prospecting you need to do to meet that link target number.

Using the link outreach template

The main purpose of this template is to give you a systematic way to analyze your outreach process so you can drill down into the biggest opportunities for improvement. There are several key features, starting with the Prospects tab.

The Prospects tab is the only one you will need to manually edit, and it houses all the potential link prospects uncovered in your researched. You’ll want to fill in the cells for your prospect’s website URL;, and you can also add the Domain Authority of the website for outreach prioritization. For the website URL, I typically put in an example of a guest post that was done on that site or just the homepage if I can’t find a better page.

There’s also a corresponding status column, with the following five stages so you can keep track of where each prospect is in the outreach process.

Status 1: Need to Reach Out. Use this for when you initially find a prospect but have not taken any action yet.

Status 2: Email Sent. This is used as soon as you send your first outreach email.

Status 3: Received Response

Status 4: Topic Approved. Select this status after you get a response and your guest post topic has been approved (this may take a few emails). Whenever I see this status, I know to reach out to my content team so they can start writing.

Status 5: Link Acquired. Selecting this status will automatically add the website to your Won Link Opportunities Report.

The final thing to do here is record the date that a particular link was acquired and add the URL where the link resides. Filling in these columns automatically populates the “Won Link Opportunities” report so you can track all of the links you acquire throughout the lifetime of your campaign.

Link building progress reports

This template automatically creates two reports that I share with my clients on a monthly basis. These reports help us dial in our efforts and maximize the performance of our overall link building campaign.

Link Pipeline report

The Link Pipeline report is a snapshot of our overall link outreach campaign. It shows us how many prospects we have in our pipeline and what the conversion/response rates are of each stage of our outreach funnel.

How to analyze the Link Pipeline report

This report allows us to understand where we need to focus our efforts to maximize our campaign’s performance. If there aren’t enough prospects at the top of the funnel, we know that we need to start looking for new link opportunities. If our contact vs. response rate is low, we know we need to test new email copy or email subject lines.

Won Link Opportunities

The Won Link Opportunities report lists out all the websites where a link has been officially landed. This is a great way to keep track of overall progress over time and to gauge performance against your link building goals.

Getting the most out of your link building campaigns

Organization is critical for maximizing your link building efforts and the return on the time you’re spending. By knowing exactly which stage of your link building process is your lowest performing, you can dramatically increase your overall efficiency by targeting those areas that need the most improvement.

Make a copy of the template

Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don’t have time to hunt down but want to read!