Friday 21 August 2009

"My fav topics are SEO, Spirituality,Tech News, Astronomy, etc..."

The title of this post, and indeed the quotes in the image, come from genuine Twitter bios.

Can I let you into a little secret? Search Engine Optimisation [SEO] is NOT some kind of mysterious modern alchemy. And it ain't rocket science. In fact it isn't any kind of science. It is a procedure. It is a procedure (in the original, non-computing sense of the word) which is an integral part of website construction and will be done automatically by the people who build and maintain your website, whether you have a whole department who do it in-house, employ a user-friendly system like our WebAdvantage® or pay an outside service to look after it for you.

Simple, obvious and no secret really. However, many people would have you believe SEO is some kind of black art requiring a new age digital shaman to point his wand at your HTML tea-leaves and javascript coffee grounds, and then pronounce his spell that will somehow - magically beyond the ken of mere mortals - lift your website into the top flight in search engines across a whole plethora of search terms.

And who are these people who would have you believe that SEO needs secret powers of sorcery? Why, it is the would-be sorcerers themselves of course.

Once upon a time in the mists of internet history (ie up until about a year ago) the fashionable service for these people to try and sell you was the traditional 'New Age' quackery of 'Life' consultancy and enhancement: "Listen to me; follow my blog; buy my book; come to my retreat and get your head straight. I have all the answers." And don't forget you can pay by Paypal.

Well, there's not much space on that old bandwagon and the tune itself is getting very tired and worn, so our would-be gurus and wizards have looked around for a new religion. And Search Engine Optimisation fits the bill perfectly: its very name is a gift to the weaver of mysteries and the creator of anxieties and insecurities. And that's what they want: they want you to worry that your website hasn't had the seal of approval, the golden tweak from an expert. SEO sounds special, complicated, technical. It has something to do with computers - it lives and breathes in the strange Digital World. Clearly the work of the Horned One. It has a sexy acronym - S - E - O. It rolls off the tongue and it is very close to CEO, possibly the most emotive, testosterone-powered acronym to come along in a generation. But most importantly, you don't need any training or experience - you don't need to do any work - to persuade the people that you, and you alone, have been favoured with this mysterious gift. I can; you can; anyone can style themselves as an SEO expert. We can all hint that we are one of the secret SEO illuminati.

But it's all an illusion. Don't be sucked in by these chancers. Don't get me wrong: of course there are large numbers of perfectly respectable consultants who happen to list SEO as one of their services. Fine. But my point is that it is not essential to have someone do it for you as some kind of special 'extra'- it should be an integral part of your website. And even if you are a complete newcomer to the procedure and are going to do it yourself, you can read Google's advice to webmasters and do a perfectly good job. Much better to concentrate your energies on giving your visitors/customers something special and attracting them to your website that way.

Of course if it is your particular fancy, you can make SEO as complicated and as involved as you like. You can spend endless hours examining every little nuance and trying to extract 'gold' from a website the search engines already think is perfectly acceptable. Sure, practice alchemy. Whatever turns you on.

Meanwhile the illuminati will continually try and persuade us that only they know all the little 'SEO tricks' which will lift your website from 193 to 172 on that very particular keyword. Tricks may briefly get you increased visits but those extra visits will be valueless because those extra visitors weren't looking for you. And remember the opening words used in the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of the noun 'trick': "a cunning or skilful act or scheme intended to deceive or outwit someone." Alternatively, my old Concise Oxford English Dictionary (1964) has: "Fraudulent device or stratagem..." One of the things the search engines work really hard at is the exposure of fraudulent SEO - they don't like being tricked. It is not good for business.

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Saturday 8 August 2009

Tom's Twitter Rules

I'm afraid I have been stirred to blog about Twitter yet again. My sincerest apologies.

Most social media 'experts' (old schoolboy joke: X = unknown factor; spurt = drip under pressure) have published their 'Twitter Rules' over the last few months, but I think none of them are anything like tough or practical enough for the average individual who actually has something resembling a real life, or business which has real work to do.

It is very easy to get seduced by Twitter and all the surrounding hyperbole and lose track of everyday realities. If you allow yourself to be seduced you risk becoming a complete Twatterer (the definition I mean is in there somewhere...I think) To avoid that sorry state, here are 'Tom's Rules' for real people and real businesses.

ONE: Have a plan. Know exactly what you are going to use Twitter for, and why. You can run several Twitter accounts each with their own plan - but stick to them.

TWO: Only follow people who are relevant to that account's plan. If you are a secondhand bookshop specialising in scientific and medical works you have no need to follow Serbian Skiing Conditions or Auntie Brenda's Cooking Tips - even if they follow you. And despite what a lot of people seem to think, Twitter is not about the number of your followers - it is not a game of the mine's-bigger-than-his variety. If you have a plan (see #1) you will quickly find out if other people are interested in your tweets. If you are the secondhand bookshop specialising in scientific and medical works, then you are a going to be very interesting for a limited but serious number of people. So be it. Forget hollow ego-boosting fantasies about 10,000 followers. However, if you are the twitterer for a real global brand, Firefox let's say, then 40,000 followers is reasonable. Note: Firefox is following a just-about-manageable number under 3,000 themselves (manageable for a big business that is).

THREE: Only follow people who have a bio in their profile. No bio = no follow. What are they hiding? - Or do they think they are being clever and mysterious? Or are they simply lazy? Of course it is OK to have no bio if you only want to follow others and make no posts yourself. In other words, just use Twitter as a kind of feed reader. But if you post at all then you must explain who and what you are about.

FOUR: Further to #2 and #3, whatever you do, don't auto-follow, or follow people manually just because they follow you. Following automatically is a slappy-happy-cosy-cuddly-luvvy-duvvy piece of etiquette from the early days of Twitter which maintains that it is the polite thing to do. Twaddle. Twitter was all fresh faced and innocent then. You just can't afford to follow back automatically. Nowadays the so-called Twittersphere is full of pimps, whores, chancers, spammers and snake oil salesmen of all descriptions. Plus people bizarrely just pretending to be one of those species of pond life.

This is a 'genuine' follower I attracted the other day:

If somebody follows you, check their bio (see #3). Check their followers; their followed; their URL and their posts. If they are following 468; have 11 followers (dozy auto-followers no doubt); no bio; a URL that takes you to a dodgy site (that includes ones that announce "I'm the best SEO expert in the entire cosmos"); have only ever made one post and they either have no pic or it's a young lady's bum in a pair of 'daisy-dukes' - then you must know you are dealing with cuckoos, vultures or magpies rather than chirpy little sparrows or wise old owls. Block them! However, if they pass all the checks, weigh up whether your plan considers them relevant enough to follow (see #2). Gotta be cruel to be kind.

FIVE: Replies. Be very careful. Replies can be very, very tedious for your followers and often exclusive - in the strictest sense of the word. Remember that your followers, who are quite likely not following any of the people you are replying to, will often have no clue what is going on, unless you are very clear in your reply about the the topic of your tweeted conversation. Sometimes it is possible to receive whole series of enigmatic replies in your Twitter stream, looking something like this:

SiliconLush @humbaggery yeah that's what I thought. Cool!
SiliconLush @bigtwaddler no sweat http://tny-thingy-thg
SiliconLush @SEOexperta thx for that
SiliconLush @longjohns he he he he http://nthrsmtng
SiliconLush @queenmuther sorry lost thread can u RT?

[Disclaimer: at time of writing none of the above usernames were in use at Twitter. If you have registered one of them since then, hey, that's not my problem. It's your problem! :-0]

Ad infinitum. And strangely they mostly appear in my stream around 18.00 Pacific Time on Fridays, emanating from people who should know better, but clearly lose the plot during their second cocktail. So if you are apt to get a little silly (or seriously shite faced) after work, turn off your cell phone and put it away out of temptation during the first mojito, there's a good chap.

SIX: Direct messages (DM). Again, be very careful. Who do you really need to DM on Twitter and why? In most cases you should have the phone or email of anybody who is going to appreciate a DM from you. My advice is only DM people who specifically ask to have some info DM-ed to them. Automatic DMs? No. Not even saying, "Thank you for following me." Everybody knows it's an auto and not at all personal, and it is a 'given' that people appreciate being followed.

SEVEN: Shortened URLs. These are a problem. If you can possibly avoid it, don't use them. But of course you have to if it is the only way you can stay inside the 140 characters. If you disagree with me, think about how you read, or graze, incoming tweets. I know I am much more likely to follow links when I can see what they are about, and if there is not a very clear indication in the rest of the tweet as to where a shortened URL is going to take me, or it's not from somebody I know I trust, I am likely to skip.

EIGHT: Sponsored tweets. Rhetorical question: why do people always look at something new and think how do we turn this into bucks? The only people who really need to make money directly from Twitter are Twitter. If you make sponsored tweets then in my book you are certainly a chancer (see #4) or probably worse. OK, if you want to get involved with sponsored tweets, then that's really none of my business, but I know that as soon as I spot a sponsored tweet from someone I am following they will be unceremoniously blocked. And I suspect a lot of people will do the same.

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Friday 7 August 2009

Refuseniks? More like angst...

Above is the image of the archetypal silver-surfer planning and booking holidays online, chatting on Skype with grandchildren in the far corners of the world and ordering the shopping for home delivery from the supermarket. A cliché, but accurate nevertheless? What is the reality?

The BBC recently published the results of an EU report under the misleading title "Europe's net refuseniks revealed." The first three sentences of the BBC piece are as follows:

The study, which examined the region's [Europe] digital landscape over the last five years, also revealed that more than one in four Europeans had never used a PC. More than one in three of the digital refuseniks said they did not see the need for a connection while nearly one quarter said they could not afford it. People above the age of 65 and the unemployed were the least active online, it said.

There are some strange assumptions here. There is confusion between computer use and internet connection and the rather risky hinted-at extrapolation that PC use means internet use. The word refusenik is a good sub-editor's sound bite - but disguises the full picture. Wikipedia says "Over time, "refusenik" has entered colloquial English usage for any type of protester." The implication of this is that the one in four Europeans who have never used a PC are all protesters who are actively rebutting all efforts to get them online. One in three of these 'protesters' said they didn't see the need and a quarter said they couldn't afford it. So all those who said they couldn't afford it are protesters, are they? Er... perhaps they just can't afford it. There is nothing surprising in the over-65s and the unemployed being the least active. But it doesn't mean they are all 'refuseniks'.

And saying that you 'don't see the need for an internet connection' doesn't make you a protester or refusenik either. Shocking to contemplate for the fully wired and plugged-in digi-addict I know, but it is just possible that lots of people, especially the elderly, genuinely see no need to be online. Shock horror. And there is something else which doesn't seem to be considered by this report: Internet Angst.

This is a subject closely related to a lack of adeptitude (see this previous post) and Future Shock. I am sure that hidden behind the EU report's percentages is a lot of fear - especially among the over 65s - even the ones who do have an internet connection. I have two real examples - elderly people I know well. I won't name them, but I dare say I could without much fear of embarrassment on either side, because - as will be revealed - neither party is very likely to ever read this blog.

The first party is a retired higher education administrator, now in his late 70s. He has had a computer for fifteen years, since just after his retirement, ten with an internet connection which has been broadband for the last 6 years. When he first got the computer he contented himself with household accounts and designing and printing leaflets and notices for both his golf club and Church. However, I remember him telling me (for the first time of many) that he would of course (of course?) limit himself to just a couple of short sessions a week. The implication being that longer exposure than that to the evil monster might seriously damage his health. And when he got a modem he was constantly apologising for, and trying to justify any time he spent online. As far as I can gather he has spent the last ten years sending and receiving a few emails; checking his banking online (yes, he does do that!), and booking a few holidays in classic silver-surfer style. Just a few weeks ago however, I asked him as an aside during a telephone conversation whether he'd like to send me photos of his grandchildren as email attachments. Almost defiantly - it seemed to me - he admitted that he "hadn't plucked up enough courage to try and work out how do that yet." In ten years?!?

The other example is a seventy-year-old former top secretary and PA now retired. Earlier this summer her children, nieces, grandchildren, brothers and sisters - who are spread across three continents - persuaded her to join Facebook after months of resistance on the grounds that she didn't "understand what Facebook is for" and she didn't want "to expose herself to all that sort of stuff." (Huh?) Nevertheless, for a week or two she exchanged messages and looked at posted photos from rellies, which she actually admitted that she enjoyed, but oddly continued to bleat about not understanding what FB was about; stated that the whole thing made her nervous and announced that she would probably delete her account quite soon. Apparently she has done exactly that. At the same time the same group of relatives had been trying to persuade her to sign up to Skype. Total flat refusal with no explanation, despite the fact her telephone bill is always an issue for her.

Why...? What is going on here? These two senior citizens are not stupid. Quite the reverse, and both are very sharp and alert. And they are certainly not alone - these are not isolated examples. Remember, these two people are not true refuseniks, to use the BBC's word: a big part of them wants to be involved with the new digital age and recognises the benefits, or some of them at least. For instance, both my examples have been sending and receiving email for years, despite one of them being unable to make an attachment. There just seems to be an invisible barrier, a mental block, beyond which they fear to tread. I believe that no amount of coaching and cajoling will ever completely eradicate this angst, and the most anyone can do is give people the opportunities to use the new technology. If they don't take them, nobody can force them. And I suspect that with many people the more they are cajoled, the more they back off.

It is well documented that electricity, the telephone, radio and television have all caused comparable anguish in their time. And go back further and a lot of people had problems getting their heads around iron ships and steam power. And millennia ago did some people look at the first wheeled vehicles or men riding horses and shake their heads, scratch their ear nervously and walk away, despite seeing the obvious benefits demonstrated by their neighbours every day?