Diving into the search sewer

How's it going with Google these days?

I wouldn't know, really, because I fled for Bing more than a year ago. The fledgling Microsoft search engine has its faults and quirks, but proves more than adequate for everyday searches.

You've probably seen the Bing commercials where people in a crowd start yelling out nonsense based on other people's nonsense (video below). Those are slaps at Google Instant, which fills in search results herky-jerky as you type.

Let's do a Google search. Say you're looking for songs by the band Hot Tuna. "Hot" brings you all "Hot Mail" results on page 1. Type in "Tu" and the search page's lead link goes to "Hot Tub Time Machine." Only when you type in all of the characters does Google deliver.

You can turn off Google Instant, but no such luck with the new auto-fill feature. While you're at it, you might want to quash ad personalization, which means you see what Google guesses will prompt a buy. In any case, Google SERPS (search engine results pages) show a major bias towards brands. Big brands.

Chaos, all right. Some people are used to it; some people aren't. Still, eight out of 10 people doing a search turn to big G.

Some experts in the SEO and SEM industries are going public with their beefs. Here's the word from SEO Jill Whalen in High Rankings Advisor:

"Since (Google's) poor results are being talked about with more fervor ... it's possible that they have indeed crossed the line. Numerous mainstream publications and highly regarded bloggers have taken notice and written about the putrid (search) results. ... Even though today Google is technically just an advertising platform that happens to offer Internet search, they built their reputation on providing superior results."

Vivek Wadhwa isn't as well known as Whalen, but he's a web guru affiliated with UC-Berkely, Harvard and Duke. He went after Google a few weeks earlier in a thoughtful Tech Crunch post called "Why We Desperately Need a New (and Better) Google"

"You can’t easily do such searches in Google any more. (It's) a jungle: a tropical paradise for spammers and marketers. Almost every search takes you to websites that want you to click on links that make them money, or to sponsored sites that make Google money. There’s no way to do a meaningful chronological search."

Wadhwa correctly points out that the SERPS are big on editorial spam -- quickie superficial articles from content mills such as Associated Content and Demand Media. Seen an article about psychedelic music on a dentist's website lately? That's primo stuff, according to Google.

"This content is what ends up as the landfill in the garbage websites that you find all over the web," Wadhwa writes. "And these are the first links that show up in your Google search results."

Perhaps this is natural selection. Every No. 1 search engine in the web's history eventually turned up lame.

All that said, Google remains the go-to service for tricky searches. I turn to Google when all else fails and I go there when there's no time to spare on a search, despite the mess. (I know how to write detailed and clutter-resistant search strings, that's why.)

Bing continues to improve, but it's years away from emerging as the clearly superior service. Blekko recently popped up as an intriguing alternative for those with search/database chops. And Google does tend to get incredibly complicated problems sorted out in time. Meanwhile, we wait.

Something's gotta give.

(Unpaid Bing commercial from YouTube.)


Another jazzy release from WordPress

WordPress just released the 3.0 version of its software, but I've been in love with it for a while.

That's because the release was named after a jazz genius, Thelonious Monk, in keeping with WP tradition. (2.7 = Coltrane.)

Monk, one of the founders of bebop, always had the coolest album covers, especially the classic one for "Underground," which finds the master playing an old piano in a rural hideout. He's armed with an AK 47 rifle, dynamite resting at his feet. Plenty of French wine about for thirsty resistance fighters. And a cow. Oh yeah, the music's insanely good as well, starting with the famed first track, (yet another) "Thelonious."

Anyway, WordPress' take on "Thelonious" brings in a badly needed new default theme, "Twenty Ten." For most of us who import themes, there are custom backgrounds, multisite functionality, bulk updates for plugins, a lighter interface. Adding up to something like 1,200 fixes and enhancements.

Staying current with WordPress always carries risk because developers take their time about updating plugins and themes. Meaning that that image gallery or calendar or Twitter thing might just go ka-blewy -- like some crafty musician dynamited it.

Check out this WordPress video about 3.0 "Thelonious":


Spelling. S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G. Spelling.

What a splendid job ABC and Scripps did with the National Spelling Bee finals.

The primetime competition took time to show the kids as kids, not just as juvenile bookworms. Viewers met the contestants in fun and flashy segments, Nickelodeon-style. Even Erin Andrews got in on the act.

Spelling is cool. Who knew.

One of the final four contestants outlined his strategy: "I just spell as I go." Quite a trick, considering most humans have never heard the words in the National Spelling Bee's final rounds. I knew exactly one, gnocchi, because I cook. Alas, the kid who drew the word wasn't a hungry Italian.

At that level, knowledge of the word isn't necessary, oddly enough. These young champs operate on the rules of spelling in numerous languages, including Greek, Latin, French, Japanese, Italian, German and Spanish. All of those came into play in the final round.

The rest of us, fortunately, can write well just knowing the rules of spelling in English.

Ever notice how so many people declare themselves lousy spellers, as if that were an incurable disease? Anyone can learn to spell at any age. Doesn't even take long, maybe a couple of hours a day for two weeks. (Grammar is another story.)

I always loved to write, but for many years operated without a fundamental grasp of spelling and grammar. Like a rock musician playing by ear, I got by. Usually. Somehow I ended up an editor and a teacher, and so became a student of the language in my mid-20s. Wasn't easy; wasn't hard. Just took time.

The confidence that comes with solid spelling skills shows up in the writing. Knowledge is power, as the Schoolhouse Rock folks made clear in "Grammar Rock."

Here are a few books aimed at adults that cover the basics of spelling. They're all available on Amazon:

As always, I recommend the language classic "The Elements of Style," one of the great books on any subject.


'Social Networking for Business' and IT guys

Ever invite a bunch of IT guys to liven up one of your New Year's Eve parties? Didn't think so.

Rawn Shah's book "Social Networking for Business" strives to explain the Twitter-YouTube-Facebook dynamic to tech people and systems-savvy executives, which no doubt it accomplishes. For the rest of us, the book is a dry read and a head-scratcher.

"Social Networking" takes what is by definition a random populist phenomenon and boils it down to a taxonomy. Shah, an IBM tech guy, sees social networking in the same light as, say, Cisco networking. He refers to "social tasks" that help shape these interactive media, a telling choice of words.

He creates "social experience models," interesting but conceptually simple to those with a working knowledge of social networking sites and apps.

Here's Shaw on the variations of these models:

Most social environments implement multiple experience models, combined into different parts of the environment. This enables the environments to capitalize on different tasks when individual users require a particular type of experience.

Indeed. To be fair, one of Shah's primary concerns is not so much Digg or StumbleUpon but in-house top-to-bottom interactivity systems built by, and managed by, IT departments.

He successfully argues for social networking in all of its forms as essential for business, making "Social Networking for Business: Choosing the Right Tools and Resources to Fit Your Needs" useful for those of us dealing with dubious CEOs and boardroom luddites.


WordPress in 24 hours: Say what?

More and more casual users are coming to the WordPress.org platform, a good and bad thing.

WordPress continues to evolve in user-friendly directions, but it remains an outpost of the Web's Wild West. The more you want out of WordPress, the more problems you'll have to stare down.

Let's take WordPress plugins, as just one example.

These independently developed extensions add functionality to a WP blog. They're essential to any blog's success. But WordPress' frequent updates to its core software can make plugins obsolete overnight. Plugins tend to conflict with each other, causing untold headaches ... such as the dreaded blank home page.

Plugin developers usually don't get paid, are in no way obligated to help users and tend to disappear when things go blewy. A plugin that seems a savior one day can be a pea soup-spitting demon the next.

Wordpress' users forums come to the rescue sometimes, but as often as not, reasonable requests for troubleshooting assistance are simply ignored.

You can learn a great deal whilst fighting your way out of a WordPress nightmare -- just don't expect things to be quick or easy. That's part of the price for hooking up with this free and amazing content management system.

This bring us to the new book "WordPress: 24-Hour Trainer" by George Plumley, which I've just read (and skimmed a bit). It purports to teach readers how to "create and customize WordPress sites" in a day." Say what?

While a quick-study newbie probably could launch a WordPress blog in a day -- using Fantastico for installation and a simple theme such as Kubrick -- no one can be "trained" to use WP in a day or even a week. Once you get beyond the simple write and post, WordPress development provides an ongoing adventure, not for the faint at heart.

Those coming to the platform without some knowledge of CSS, xhtml, PHP and javascript won't be doing much customizing, that's for sure.

I've coached quite a few WordPress newbies, some of whom really shouldn't be on the platform. Others dive right in and embrace the challenge.

Not sure where you'd fit in? Right here on Blogger is a good place to park those kids-and-dogs blogs.

In any case, the "24 Hours" spent reading Plumley's book would be better spent learning by doing. If that's too daunting, WordPress may not be the right platform anyway. Someone who needs a 350-page book to explain the basics of content management systems probably isn't a good candidate for the next level of WP use, where the action is.

To be fair, the author can't be blamed for the publisher's marketing hooks, and he probably would agree with most of the above.

Plumley is good at explaining how the CMS works and succeeds in keeping the book from reading like a tech manual. No doubt it would be handy to have around as a reference for newbies. (For more advanced users, there's the "WordPress Bible," which clocks in at almost 700 pages.)

Again, the best way to learn WP is hands-on. Much of the basic stuff presented here should be tackled on your own, via trial and error -- and there are always WordPress' excellent text and video tutorials. They're free, unlike the book, which goes for $45.


SEO Whiteboard: Thank god it's Friday

I dig Fridays.

So what, don't we all?

Yeah, it's the end of the work week, but my solo gig demands seven-days-a-week production. Working for yourself does kill that weekend and holiday buzz.

I dig Whiteboard Fridays, to be specific.

The web site SEOmoz.com produces a short video every week, often going over traffic-building techniques both complicated and simple. Even if I know the stuff, it's interesting to see how they present it.

Check out this week's vid post, about Quality vs. Quantity in link building. The on-camera talent is Rand Fishkin, CEO of SEOmoz.

My feeling about links is there's never a worthless one -- except for what Google calls "bad neighborhoods" (spam, scam, gambling, etc.) -- but getting a link from a high-traffic high-authority high-relevance site can do wonders. As in, you do a site about cars and land a red-hot link from the home page of Car and Driver.

The corollary is it sucks when they drop the link down the line, and you probably can't figure out why the traffic or Page Rank are down.

I experienced a drop in PR from 6 to 5 on the DVD blog about the time my friend left variety.com and her blog was discontinued, along with my high-authority incoming link. My DVD reviews blog has thousands of other links, but I mourn that one. Of course the drop could be due to a zillion other factors -- and Page Rank is only worth worrying about so much.

When I lose Page Rank, I point out that the measure (named for Google's Larry Page) doesn't matter all that much in terms of online traffic.

When I gain Page Rank, it's time to hail that great and flawless indicator of online success.

My Friday routine also involves opening the "Free Shirt" email blast from the online marketing guru Shoemoney. It's a picture of Shoe wearing some swag T-shirt. Unfortunately, his everyday posts have become about that informative --unless you care about his fame, his products, his travels. Too bad, Shoe used to be quite good and I learned a lot from him starting out.

So "Shoemoney -- Skills to Pay the Bills'" days are numbered on my poorly named list of "Top 10 newsletters for SEO, SEM, pro blogging."

In comes, what else, SEOmoz.com's daily blast.


Anyone up for a lava party?

Just finished a new web site that says aloha to people planning trips to the Big Island of Hawaii.

Specifically, it's a visitors guide to Hilo and the Volcanoes National Park -- the area on the east side of the island of Hawaii.

Please check it out, especially if you're unfamiliar with this unique part of Hawaii. The big draws are active volcanoes that rule over the lush ancient lands and the powerful observatories built upon the mountains.

The site -- bigislandeast.com -- uses City, a WordPress theme from the retired Revolution premium line. Revolution now is known as StudioPress. Only developers who bought licenses from the company before 2008 have access to these cool "oldie goldie" themes. I like both the old and new designs, and so do my clients.

The logo was done by Hawaiian/L.A. artist Kristie Kosmides.

The Flash-style gallery is actually a Javascript-based WP plugin known as Featured Content Gallery. That plugin has undergone a major rewrite since the City theme came out, so I did the update and all is well. Themes can live for a long time if you keep up with the updates and upgrades. I have another one that is almost ancient, but I love the look and it still gets the job done, many versions of WP down the road.

Big Island East is typical of hybrid blogs/web sites that seek to capitalize on the best of both formats. Visitors to this site, for example, can comment on almost all of the articles, even though they're not blog posts in the way most people think of them. But the look and feel of Big Island East would never be confused wih your basic Blogger/TypePad/WP theme.

(The closest current Studio Press theme is Lifestyle, which has just been updated to make it easier for average users.)

It's always a rush to finally finish a web site, especially one as content rich as this one. Kind of feels like the kid is leaving home. You're a wee bit sad to see the site leave the nest (always more stuff to fiddle with), but you're doubly glad to have it take flight and get out of your hair.


Stand by for WordPress 2.8. Or jump in now.

The workhorses at WordPress.org have uploaded Version 2.8 as a beta, available to all.

There are more than 100 upgrades and fixes in this iteration, so you might want to jump on board when it's released. I am in the habit of waiting for a .1 version after a major update -- letting others deal with the release bugs -- but this time I'm going in on official release day. Easy to get a feel for the severity of problems in the release in the WP forums.

WordPress made updating a lot easier with 2.7, so this will be the first big test of that one-step process via the dashboard. Anyone who's been on WP for more than five months remembers the risks and pains of updating the old-fashioned way. There also is the Wordpress Automatic Upgrade plug-in that has never failed me.

For the brave, foolhardy or public-service-minded, switching to the 2.8 beta is now an option.

Here are some of the promising new features in WordPress 2.8:

  • A new routine for theme installations. (Not that the old one was hard.)

  • A "custom header" for menu text. (Whatever that means).

  • A documentation lookup for the theme and plug-in editors. (How about a universal code string search?)

  • An end to notifying the author of his own comments.

  • Improved widget interface. (Thank God.)

  • Allow editing of all plug-ins.

  • An option to use plug-ins on individual pages.

  • The ability to run several galleries on a single page.

  • Improved database performance. (Always an adventure when the DB comes into play.

  • More subject options for tag clouds (such as show categories instead).