Outreach gets people to your meetinghouse / Hospitality keeps people returning.

Over on Twit­ter feed came a tweet (h/t revrevwine):

seo - Google SearchTo trans­late, SEO is “search engine opti­miza­tion,” the often-huckersterish art of trick­ing Google to dis­play your web­site high­er than your com­peti­tors in search results. “Usabil­i­ty” is the catch-all term for mak­ing your web­site easy to nav­i­gate and invit­ing to vis­i­tors. Com­pa­nies with deep pock­ets often want to spend a lot of mon­ey on SEO, when most of the time the most viable long-term solu­tion to rank­ing high with search engines is to pro­vide vis­i­tors with good rea­sons to vis­it your site. What if we applied these prin­ci­ples to our church­es and meet­ing­hous­es and swapped the terms?

Out­reach gets peo­ple to your meetinghouse /
Hos­pi­tal­i­ty keeps peo­ple returning.

A lot of Quak­er meet­ing­hous­es have pret­ty good “nat­ur­al SEO.” Here in the U.S. East Coast, they’re often near a major road in the mid­dle of town. If they’re lucky there are a few his­tor­i­cal mark­ers of notable Quak­ers and if they are real­ly lucky there’s a highly-respected Friends school near­by. All these meet­ings real­ly have to do is put a nice sign out front and table a few town events every year. The rest is cov­ered. Although we do get the occa­sion­al “aren’t you all Amish?” com­ments, we have a much wider rep­u­ta­tion that our num­bers would nec­es­sar­i­ly war­rant. We rank pret­ty high.

But what are the lessons of hos­pi­tal­i­ty we could work on? Do we pro­vide places where spir­i­tu­al seek­ers can both grow per­son­al­ly and engage in the impor­tant ques­tions of the faith in the mod­ern world? Are we invi­ta­tion­al, bring­ing peo­ple into our homes and into our lives for shared meals and conversations?

In my free­lance days when I was hired to work on SEO I ran through a series of sta­tis­ti­cal reports and redesigned some under­per­form­ing pages, but then turned my atten­tion to the client’s con­tent. It was in this realm that my great­est quan­tifi­able suc­cess­es occurred. At the heart of the con­tent work was ask­ing how could the site could more ful­ly engage with first-time vis­i­tors. The “usabil­i­ty con­sid­er­a­tions” on the Wikipedia page on usabil­i­ty could be eas­i­ly adapt­ed as queries:

Who are the users, what do they know, what can they learn? What do users want or need to do? What is the users’ gen­er­al back­ground? What is the users’ con­text for work­ing? What must be left to the machine? Can users eas­i­ly accom­plish intend­ed tasks at their desired speed? How much train­ing do users need? What doc­u­men­ta­tion or oth­er sup­port­ing mate­ri­als are avail­able to help the user?

I’d love to see Friends con­sid­er this more. FGC’s “New Meet­ings Tool­box” has a sec­tion on wel­com­ing new­com­ers. But I’d love to hear more sto­ries about how we’re work­ing on the “usabil­i­ty” of our spir­i­tu­al communities.

DiMeo Blueberry Farms & Nursery

DiMeo Blueberry FarmsThe DiMeo fam­i­ly owns and oper­ates sev­er­al of the largest blue­ber­ry farms in the world, right here in the “blue­ber­ry cap­i­tal of the world”: Ham­mon­ton, New Jer­sey. They have an exist­ing web­site that is hand-edited. We cre­at­ed a sec­ond site using WordPress.
On launch it has much of the same con­tent as the oth­er site, but arranged into posts and cat­e­go­rized and tagged for search engine vis­i­bil­i­ty. It also high­lights the DiMeo Blue­ber­ry Farms’ Face­book, Twit­ter and Youtube out­lets. I’ll be inter­est­ed to see how it gets picked up by search engines and how vis­i­tors start to use it

See also:
DiMeo Blue­ber­ry Farms on Mer­chant Cir­cle, Youtube, Face­book and Twit­ter.

SEO Myths I: Analyze This

Every web designer under the sun talks about search engine optimization (SEO), but it amazes me to see how often basic principles are ignored. I'm in-between jobs right now, which means I'm spending a lot of time looking at potential employers' websites. I've decided to start a series of posts on SEO myths and realities that will talk about designing for maximum visibility.

I'm not going to focus on any of the underhanded tricks to fool search engines into listing an inappropriate page. Google hates this kind of tactic and so do I. You get visits for having good content. Good search rankings are based on good content and the best way to boost your content is to present your page in a way that lets both humans and search engines find the content they want. Part one is on website analysis and tracking.

Don't assume that your website is easy to navigate. One of the neatest things about the web is that we have instant feedback on use. With just a little tracking we can see what pages people are looking at, how they're finding our site and what they're doing once they're here.

Javascript Trackers:

My most advanced sites are currently using four different tracking methods. Most utilize javascript "bugs," tiny snippets of code that send individual results to an advanced software tracking system. I put the code inside a Moveable Type "Modules Template" which is automatically imported to all pages. Installing a new system is as easy as cutting-and-pasting the javascript into the Template and rebuilding the site.

  • AXS Visitors Tracking System
    This software installs on your server but don't let that scare you: this is one of the easiest installations I've ever seen. AXS gives you great charts of usage: you can narrow it specific pages on your site, or even particular search engines or search phrases.
    There's also a option to view the lastest traffic by visitor. I love watching this! You can see how individuals are using the site and where they're navigating. I've been able to identify different types of visitors this way and understand the complexity of the audience.
    It doesn't seem like AXS is not being developed anymore. The latest stable version came out over two years go, which is a shame.

  • HitTail
    This service watches search-engine links and makes recommendations for new keywords. I wrote about this service yesterday in Blogging for the Long Tail.

  • Reeferss.com
    This is a simple simple bit of software. Like every other tracking system it keeps track of referrers: search engines and websites that bring traffic to your site. But unlike the others that's all it does. Why care then? It provides a real-time RSS feed of these visitors. I bring the feed into my "Netvibes" page (a customized start page, see below) and scan the results multiple times a day.

  • Google Analytics
    The internet's gatekeeper bought the Urchin analytics company in April 2005 and relaunched the product as Google Analytics shortly thereafter. This is becoming an essential tracker. It's free and it's powerful, though I haven't been as impressed by it as others have. See its Wiki page for more.

Internet Trackers:

It's easy to find out what people are saying about you online.

  • Technorati
    This service tracks blogs but you don't need to have a blog to use it, for Technorati will tell you where blogs are linking. Give it your URLs (or those of your competitors!) and you'll know whenever a blogger puts in a link to you. You can also give it keywords and find out when a blog uses them.

  • Google Blog Search
    Google can also let you follow blog references or keyword mentions on the blogs. Google will also track beyond blogs of course. Type "site:www.yourdomain.com" into the main Google search page and you'll see who's linking to your site (or to the competition). There are lots of other services that track blogs and mentions--Sphere, Bloglines, etc. They all have different strengths so try them and see what you think.

  • Feedburner
    The best RSS massager has always focused on ways to track your RSS feed. They've recently introduced page tracking software too. It looks great but I just installed it this week. I still have to see if it's as good as Feedburner's other offerings.

Keeping on top of this flow of data:

It's easy to get overwhelmed by all of this information. Most of the tracking services provide RSS feeds (See The Wonders of RSS Feeds for an intro). I use Netvibes, a customized start page, to pull these all together into a single page that I can scan every morning. Here's a screenshot of part of my Netvibes tracking page--the full page currently shows fourteen tracking feeds on one screen:

So why is tracking important to SEO?

With tracking you find out what people are looking for on the internet. This helps you create pages and services that people will want to find. You might be surprised to see what they're already finding on your site. Some examples:

  • Analyzing one site, I noticed that few pages I thought were obscure were bringing in high Google traffic. I looked at these pages again and realized they did a good job of describing the company's mission. I consequently redesigned the site homepage to feature them and I made sure that those pages contained direct links to its most important services.

  • When I started work for another client I looked at their site and suspected that they're most important articles were not being seen--visitors had to click through about four times to get to them. Six months of tracking confirmed my hunch and gave me the hard data to convince the executive director that we made some small modifications to the design. Having this strong content linked right off the homepage helped bring in Google traffic.

Marketing and Publicizing Your Site

“Build it and they will come” is not a very good web strategy.
Instead, think “if I spent $3000 on a website but no visitors came, did
I spend $3000?” There are no guarantees that anyone will ever visit a
site. But there are ways to make sure they do.

Much of web mar­ket­ing fol­lows the rules of any oth­er mode of
pub­lic­i­ty: iden­ti­fy an audi­ence, build a brand, appeal to a lifestyle
and keep in touch with your cus­tomers and their needs. A sucess­ful web
cam­paign uti­lizes print mail­ings, man­u­fac­tured buzz, gen­uine word of
mouth and email. Finances can lim­it the options avail­able but everyone
can do something.

One of the most excit­ing aspects of the inter­net is that the most
pop­u­lar sites are usu­al­ly those that have some­thing inter­est­ing to
offer vis­i­tors. The cost of entry to the web is so low that the little
guys can com­pete with giant cor­po­ra­tions. A good strat­e­gy involves
find­ing a niche and build­ing a com­mu­ni­ty around it. Per­son­al­i­ty and idio­syn­cra­cy are actu­al­ly com­pet­i­tive advantages!

It would be cru­el of me to just drop off a com­plet­ed web­site at the
end of two months and wash my hands of the project. Many web designers
do that, but I’m more inter­est­ed in build­ing sites that are used. I can
work with you on all aspects of pub­lic­i­ty, from design to launch and
beyond to ana­lyz­ing vis­i­tor pat­terns to learn how we can serve them better.

Making sites sticky

We don’t want some­one to vis­it your site once, click on a few links
and then dis­ap­pear for­ev­er. We want to give your vis­i­tors rea­sons to
come back fre­quent­ly, a qual­i­ty we call “sticky” in web par­lance. Is
your site a use­ful ref­er­ence site? Can we get vis­i­tors to sign up for
email updates? Is there a com­mu­ni­ty of users around your site?

Making sites search engine friendly

Google. We all want Google to vis­it our sites. One of the biggest
scams out there are the com­pa­nies that will reg­is­ter your site for only
$300 or $500 or $700. The search engines get their
com­pet­i­tive advan­tage by includ­ing the whole web and there’s no reason
you need to pay any­one to get the atten­tion of the big search engines. 

The most impor­tant way to bring Google to your site is to build it
with your audi­ence in mind. What are the key­words you want peo­ple to
find you with? Your town name? Your busi­ness? Some spe­cif­ic qual­i­ty of
your work? I can build the site from the ground up to high­light those
phras­es. Here too, being a niche play­er is an advantage. 

I know lots of Google tricks. One site of mine start­ed attract­ing four times the vis­its after its pro­gram­mer and I redesigned it for Google. My sites are so well indexed that if I often get vis­i­tors search­ing for
the odd­est things. We can actu­al­ly tell when vis­i­tors come from search
engines and we can even tell what they’re search­ing for! Google
appar­ent­ly thinks I know “how to flat­ten used sod” and am the guy to
ask if you won­der “do amish women wear bras.” I can make sure your impor­tant search terms also get noticed by Google and the rest!

Vanity Googling of Causes

A poster to an obscure dis­cus­sion board recent­ly described typ­ing a par­tic­u­lar search phrase into Google and find­ing noth­ing but bad infor­ma­tion. Repro­duc­ing the search I deter­mined two things: 1) that my site topped the list and 2) that the results were actu­al­ly quite accu­rate. I’ve been hear­ing an increas­ing num­ber of sto­ries like this. “Cause Googling,” a vari­a­tion on “van­i­ty googling,” is sud­den­ly becom­ing quite pop­u­lar. But the inter­est­ing thing is that these new searchers don’t actu­al­ly seem curi­ous about the results. Has Google become our new proof text?

Con­tin­ue read­ing

How Insiders and Seekers Use the Quaker Net

Every once in awhile I get an indication that various "weighty" Quakers come to my "Quaker Ranter" site, usually because of a group email that someone sends around or a post on some listserve. What's fascinating is that few of the insider Friends ever spend much time looking around: they go to the one page that's been referenced and then--swoosh, they're gone, presumably back to their email or listserve. There's a profound lack of curiosity about what else I might be writing about. These institutional Friends never post comments and they rarely even send any feedback by email.

This contrasts very sharply with the bulk of traffic to my site. Dozens of people a day come in off a Google search. Unless it's a bad match, these seekers spend time on the site, clicking all around, following links to other sites, coming back, reading some more. Not everyone comes in via search engines: some follow links from elsewhere while others read the RSS Feed or just come in ever few days to see what's new.

Part of the difference between "institutional" and "seeking" users is in their use of search engines. Many establishment Quakers don't know how to use them or don't think to use them. A website marketing proposal of mine was almost nixed recently when a committee member learned that search engines bypass a site's homepage to return results from inside pages. I just assumed that everyone knew by now how a search engine works. I use Google dozens of times a day; it's hard for me to imagine anyone navigating the net without it. It must almost be like they're using a separate medium. Both of us are using the internet as transmission conduit, but that's like saying both a newspaper and a personal letter use paper and ink for transition: while this is indisputably true, it doesn't begin to speak to the different use and the depth of audience.

* * *

I wonder if the internet divide represents an even more significant divide between institutional insiders and the rest of us. The insiders might be staff, committee clerks or just very involved Friends but they share a certain way of understanding their world. First off, they have their ideas all figured out already. There's a lack of curiosity here. They aren't searching for new writers or new ideas. They will only consider something after some other Quaker institution has recognized it, a Catch-22 situation that the military refers to as "incestuous amplification."

Any project outside of the established recognition zone is invisible. Even ones that have become dominant in their field are acknowledged only begrudgingly. In the last ten years, Quaker.org has done more for outreach than just about any institutionally-sponsored program or committee. Yet I know of establishment Quakers who still think of it as an upstart, and truly believe their puttering about is more important, simply because their organization has been around longer. In truth, many Quaker websites get so little traffic as to be next to non-existent.

The insider's primary point of reference is institutions. Power comes from knowing how ideas, proposals and decisions flow through these organizations. A good idea is only good if it's made by the right person and vetted by the right small group first. Sometimes I'll hear of the gossip of some group scheming within some Quaker institution and I always have to laugh: like, WHO CARES? It's a small bunch of people scrambling over crumbs while the world ignores them. There's a whole other world of Friends and seekers out there building their own culture and connections, or trying to.

This Quaker Ranter site is primarily for those still curious, for those still interesting in building something real, for those wanting engaging conversation and stories. I actually prefer it to be a little bit "underground," unknown or forgotten by institutionalists, for I think there's discussions we need to have and the open internet is a good place for that.


I'll be editing and adding to this post over time as I see more patterns of site use. I'm curious if others have seen surprising patterns of internet use. Oh, and by the way I should cop to being a Quaker insider myself, though I always try to keep the big picture (i.e., God and the Spirit's commands) foremost.