Make time to think

I had drinks last night with some old friends. It’s always nice to catch up, but one of the great benefits of this particular group is how much they make me contemplate ideas. We all worked together almost 10 years ago now at SmallBusiness.com, back when it was a different kind of site than it is today. [A site ahead of its time, as another sb.com alum and I discussed today.] That’s a fun topic all its own, but not what I sat down to say.

We started talking about social media, and the pace of work life today. The four of us have all spent our adult lives online for work — building, designing and writing websites, thinking up new ways for the web to work, creating stuff online. But we consider ourselves a step removed from Gen Y, say, or younger people, who have also grown up online. And we quickly fell into a tirade on how “kids today” aren’t learning critical thinking skills in school. About how in the working world, it’s about getting through your to-do list. We wondered how much the instantaneous nature of social media encourages this immediacy, and how much it’s simply a symptom of a more global attitude that today is too late, tomorrow you’re dead.

One thing we all agreed on: It’s very difficult to find time to think. About anything–either a specific topic or not. We don’t build downtime into our schedules anymore. Worse, every moment is up for grabs in our waking day.

I’ve talked before here about how time is necessary for your brain to consolidate information and make connections. Just as important to me is the time spent blue-skying, asking “What if?” If all your time is spent accomplishing tasks, certainly you’ve been productive, but how will you know if that’s actually what you should have been doing?

Thinking isn’t a step you can short-cut out of the system — not if you expect elegance and brilliance in your work.

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Blogging ethics: Where do you draw the line?

I’ve come across a couple of interesting posts in the past few days, both related to the ethics of blogging. I struggle with how to frame the issues, because I think there are two different definitions of blogging:

  • Creating a personal or professional journal online
  • Using blog software (or a web hosting service like www.hostiserver.com) to power a website that may have one or many authors

When most people think of “blogging,” I believe they’re thinking of the former definition. And when I think about the ethics of these two issues, that’s where I believe questions come into play. However, I think more and more, organizations are discovering how the latter definition benefits them. But to be clear, that’s not what I’m talking about today. It’s a long way from starting your blog from choosing your hosting site from somewhere like web hosting canada, and deciding what you’re going to write about, to looking get sponsored blogging.

Last week, Forrester came out with a report recommending the practice of “sponsored blogging” — basically, marketers offering payment or goods to bloggers in exchange for product reviews, etc. ReadWriteWeb writes how they’re sort of against this practice. They attempt to make a distinction between cash payments, products, and other offerings — and to define how advertorials fit into the whole mess.

This is an area where transparency solves a lot of problems. I started writing many years ago on the college newspaper staff, and we had drawers and drawers full of CDs and tapes [yep, I’m old] from record companies, and books from publishers. In the media industry, that’s not viewed as a free benefit — those are review copies. Music and book publishers know that most media outlets won’t review items unless you give them a free copy to try. [Consumer Reports has long stood out in this field: They purchase everything they review and don’t even take advertising.]

I think most of the so-called “mommy blogging” reviews fall into this category. Here’s the critical question for me: As a reader, which would you rather read — an unsolicited product review, just because the blogger loves/hates the item so much they can’t help but say so, or a review prompted by the company sending the item to the blogger for the specific purpose of reviewing it? There are lots of questions to ask when it comes to starting a blog, one of which is how you’re going to design it, but luckily there is custom blog design available now which saves you a lot of time.

I fall on both sides. For tech items, I enjoy knowing about people’s personal preferences, but when I need the details, I go to CNET, Consumer Reports or some other site where I know I can count on the pros to walk me step-by-step through my options. For parenting and kid items, I’m much more likely to take another mom’s personal recommendation.

Whatever your deal is, being clear about it is critical to establishing trust with your readers.Whether I’m reading a magazine, newspaper or online, it helps me as a reader to evaluate your statements if I understand the source.

Which leads me to my next link. Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers and a prolific blogger, writes about ghost-blogging: Hiring someone to write your blog for you. If you’re unclear at all on why this is wrong, head right over to read Michael’s post — which he wrote himself, just like he does for all his posts.

Here’s where things start to get fuzzy for me, though. I don’t think ghost-writing is wrong. But ghost-blogging? No way. I’m trying to reconcile that in my mind. I think it partially comes down to this:

Blogging is a personal medium. And online, we don’t have a lot of clues to help us decide whom we can trust. So at the very least, if you’re going to write online, you have to start by doing the work yourself. You have to be a real person with a real name. And you can’t hire someone to be you.

Hiring someone to write copy for your website? Super. [Call me, let’s talk.] Hiring someone to write your speech? Absolutely. But when your name and photo are all we have to go on, you need to be the wizard behind the curtain.

It all comes down to the same principle: transparency. Be who you say you are. It’s critical currency on the Internet.

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Two quick thoughts on social media and technology choices

I was scanning Twitter this a.m. to catch up on the world and I ran across a link to Mike Moran‘s interview with Paul Gillin about how corporations are using social media well, and how they’re using it poorly. The interview is a great, quick read that I highly recommend.

Two points stood out to me. The first is Gillin talking about how many marketers miss the “social” or personal aspect of social media:

I’m frequently surprised at how many marketers treat social media campaigns the same way they treated mass media campaigns. They dish out bland, homogenized messages meant to reach a large audience. That completely misses the point.

A few questions later, he’s definitely preaching to my choir when he talks about corporations choosing tools before strategies:

I would say starting with the tool is the most common mistake. Someone says “Let’s start a blog,” and so they figure out a way to start a blog regardless of whether a blog makes any strategic sense for them all.

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Search engine optimization isn't mysterious: Finding your keywords

I recently had a business owner ask me about the money she’d been spending on search engine optimization. She’s a small, local business owner with one part-time employee, and she was spending $50 a month with a company that promised to ensure her business would display on “the first page of Google results.”

This business owner happened to have TWO listings on the front page of Google anyway — free listings. One in the Google Local map section, and one in organic search. I thought, well, then she must have a keyword ad, and that’s what this company was managing.

Nope.

Here’s my basic thought on search engine optimization — also known as SEO: If it sounds like a scam, it is.

No one can promise to get you on the first page of Google for your desired keyword. However, there are several easy things you can do to improve your own search engine rankings, or you can work with a reputable SEO firm such as Fusion Vegas (http://fusionvegas.com/services/).

So I’ll make a few posts in the coming days to tell you about things that anyone can do to improve their search engine rankings. First up: Using keywords.

Keywords sound mysterious to many people when they first begin to learn about SEO, but they aren’t. Keywords are what people type into the search box on Google, Yahoo! or any other search engine. If you’re using the same keywords on your website that people type into the search box when they’re looking for your kind of company, you’re more likely to show up in their search results. The concept of SEO is something that is important when it comes to the world of digital marketing, especially if you are looking to create a form of online visibility for your business. There are companies out there like NGP Integrated Marketing Communications that offer services of SEO in order to help support any business’s digital marketing campaigns. With the help of these sorts of specialists, you will be able to get the best results in terms of improving your brand’s digital presence. There’s so much you will learn and need to know, so it may be in your best interest to ask for a bit of help. Find a DIGITAL MARKETING AGENCY NEAR ME.

When you’re picking keywords, you’re trying to get into your potential customer’s brain and ask, Now, if I wanted a business that does X, how would I search for it online? There are no rules about “keywords” and no magic way to identify the best ones. But there are some tricks you can try to hone your keywords.

We often make assumptions about ourselves that our customers don’t make. We use industry slang to identify ourselves or talk inside baseball. Our customers don’t.

  • So, ask your customers: How would you search for me on Google if you didn’t know the name of my company?
  • Check your website’s incoming search results to see what keywords DO bring people to you.
  • And search yourself to find your competitors online — with a description of what they do, not their company names — to see what keywords are most successful.

These three tips will get you a long way down the road to the right keywords for your organization. If you’re ready to take another step, you can also check out some free tools from Google: the Search-Based Keyword Tool, and the AdWords Keyword Tool. Primarily designed to help you run a Google AdWords campaign, these tools can also help you find keywords you can use on your site.

Next time, I’ll share some ideas about what you should be doing with those keywords.

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What you shouldn't learn from the Facebook TOS incident

Earlier this week, Facebook released a new terms of service agreement, which appeared to give Facebook perpetual, non-exclusive copyright to anything you post there.

After a bunch of back and forth in the blogosphere [I do hate that word, but this is really where it was happening], and general demonizing of Facebook itself, and the creation of several “I hate the new Facebook TOS” groups on Facebook itself, the company finally said, umm, we didn’t mean to make y’all mad. Let’s forget this ever happened, mmk?

And their intent seems to be, they’ll fix what they were trying to fix the first time around, with some overhauled terms, one day soon. But that they’re really not trying to steal our stuff.

What not to learn
And all this is very well and good. But I would hate for anyone to take away this lesson from the Great Facebook TOS incident of February 2009:

You can be sloppy and/or abuse your site’s users all you want.

Now, if Facebook didn’t have a history of actually doing that, I’d be more willing to excuse them for this incident. I think they really may just have not realized the loophole their new terms created for abuse of users’ content. But many significant developments on Facebook do seem to happen with this stutter-step approach:

  1. Facebook adds a new feature [the News Feed, Beacon] without properly sharing the benefits with the community.
  2. People have a cow.
  3. Facebook retreats or partially retreats.
  4. People simmer down and continuing sharing what they had for breakfast with everyone they know.

Here’s the bottom line: Facebook gets away with this kind of behavior because — according to Mark Zuckerberg’s recent blog post — if Facebook were a country, it would be the 6th most populous country on earth. China, India, the U.S., Indonesia, Brazil, Facebook. You can’t get the access Facebook gives you anywhere else.

The rest of us aren’t Facebook
In most other online communities — and especially small, private-label, or local communities — the group needs each user far more than the user needs the group. So when we’re managing a community, we have to remember that our efforts had better make sense the first time around. We’d better be transparent. And we’d better do our best to be useful to the community.

It’s just too easy for a community member to walk when we abuse them. No matter what Facebook demonstrates to the contrary.

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The Facebook TOS debacle: You probably don't care

Today, Consumerist made a big splash in certain geeky communities by identifying a passage that’s been removed from the Facebook terms of service agreement. Now, Facebook asserts the perpetual, non-exclusive right to any content you post on the site, even if you [or they] delete your account.

I’m actually one of those geeks who reads TOS agreements. I think I’ve read them for every major social network/content site I use. I don’t agree with all the provisions in all of them, but so far, I’ve been willing to agree to them legally, because the benefits of using the services have outweighed my disagreements with their legal positions.

The reality is outlined nicely by my Twitter friend Eyebee, however. Most people just don’t care.

…most people aren’t even going to read about it, and most that do won’t understand the implications, or even care about it anyway.

If you still care
I found a great analysis of the whole situation over at Mashable. It’s worth reading and understanding–and it makes a decent guess at Facebook’s motivation.

My thought here is that both points are relevant. Most people don’t care, but this situation clearly highlights an issue that we haven’t yet figured out the right way to resolve legally.

The real problem
Copyright law and digital rights management simply haven’t kept up with technology. I’m not one to advocate more regulation and legislation, particularly in this area–frankly, I think most in Congress understand less about the implications of our print-based copyright law on the Internet than most 22-year-olds at this point. I’m trying hard to think of something Congress has done about copyright recently that I liked. Hmm. Still thinking.

But situations like this one at Facebook–where posting content from various sources, and allowing it to be shared on various destinations–simply aren’t covered by existing law. And so we’re going to continue having these copyright and licensing issues for a long time.

Update: The Industry Standard gets the scoop from Facebook, who’s now also blogging about the TOS issue.

My final point: Facebook may CLAIM it intends to play nice here. And I suspect it does. But the new TOS agreement allows it not to.

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I'll now say something nice about Ning

I’m easy. In fact, I’m a flat-out sucker for the director of support making a comment on my blog and apologizing for my problem.

I’ve complained in the past couple of days about some problems I had with Ning, and today, Laura G. from Ning let me know that in one instance, I’d actually run into a bug that they’ve now fixed.

So I will just add this as my final though on Ning for a while: It may be frustrating, but they are paying attention. So, thanks, Laura G.

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Still not sure what to say about Ning

Yesterday, I was complaining about Ning making it too hard to change my email. But I still wanted to fix it, so I dug around and found the Ning test site I’d built so I could update my email, as my other site told me I’d have to do.

And — you already knew this, didn’t you — I had a third email account on my test site.

Stumped, I went back to Digital Nashville, where I wanted to update my contact info in the first place. I tried again to change my email in the profile area. No dice. Same error as before. I clicked the “Settings” button in the top right. Your email address is also listed there. And there, Ning let me update my email.

I honestly can’t tell the difference between the Profile and the Settings pages. They look exactly the same. So I’m still calling this whole experience a disaster, even though I did update my email in the end. I’ve said for a long time that Ning is too hard to use, though it still seems to be better than any alternative. I may have to revise my thoughts there….maybe nothing is better.

Please tell me where I’m being an idiot here. I really like the theory of Ning. I want to like the reality of Ning. I just haven’t found any reason to yet.

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When to use a PDF. When not to.

I was literally just thinking about how I always print PDFs. I was going to say something on Twitter about it, even. And then I opened my new QuickBooks manual, which came in PDF format, and discovered it was 605 pages.

What a PDF does
PDFs (portable document format, originally developed by Adobe) are designed to ensure the recipient sees your document exactly the same way you do — among other things. You can view a Microsoft Word document, save it, and email it to a friend — and even if you are both using PCs and have the same fonts installed, it may appear a little different to them.

And once you move past common system fonts, or cross the PC-Mac divide, all bets are off with original documents. So PDFs make a lot of sense. In addition, you can often convey information much better in a PDF. You can use a sophisticated graphics or layout program, like InDesign or Illustrator, to create graphs and charts that Word, Excel and other common programs can’t create. Then, you make a PDF of your graphics-intensive document, and your readers don’t need to own the original program to view the document — just the free, and commonly used, Adobe Reader.

Design challenges for online reading
Well designed web pages are short, with lots of cues to help you know where to dive in and where to skim — because study after study shows that that’s how we read online. But a well designed PDF often looks and feels like a book.

So when I download a good PDF, I want to read it like a book or manual — holding it in my hands. Marking pages and making notes. That’s the kind of information you commonly get in a PDF — information that requires tactical engagement.

I’m unsure of the value of a 605-page PDF. Actually, I can tell you how much it’s going to cost me. If I print the QuickBooks manual, it will take me 1.08 of my standard HP color cartridges, and 1.25 of my standard black cartridges. $73.19. That’s an awfully expensive manual, no? Instead, apparently I have to keep this 22 MB file sitting around on my computer so I can search it when I need to know something. Because I’m certainly not going to read a 605-page PDF on the computer.

I try to avoid web cliches like this, but this strikes me as an epic fail on QuickBooks’ part.

Consider the format when you’re putting a document together. How will people want to use it? Are you making the information useful?

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