Update: Who gains the most from Paterson fallout?

March 4, 2010

I figured after the events of the past few days, I should probably give an update about my feelings on the mess surrounding New York Gov. David Paterson.

In the past week, Paterson aide David Johnson has been accused of domestic violence and suspended without pay. The news media — which dug up and printed the tenuous story based on anonymous sources — has blown the story up so big that two of Paterson’s top cops have resigned. Paterson is under investigation by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for a phone call between Paterson and Johnson’s accuser. On top of that, Paterson is being accused of illegally accepting free World Series tickets from the Yankees.

Speculation flying around the media now is that Paterson will resign soon — and possibly face prosecution later.

So I bet you’re thinking I want to back down on all the stuff I said about the New York Times’ story about Johnson, right? Wrong.

Look: This crazy witch hunt just keeps getting crazier. And if you don’t think the same people who planted the Times story are the very same people calling for Paterson’s resignation, you just don’t know New York politics.

At this point, we have no idea what really went down between Johnson and his accuser. We don’t know what Paterson said to her. We do know that Paterson claims that she called him — not the other way around. So far, that’s all we’ve got.

Who’s doing the investigating? Why, none other than Andrew Cuomo — the guy the state’s top Democrats really want to run against Rick Lazio for New York governor.

This charade is just too easy to see through. Paterson is not a strong candidate. Even the president asked him to step aside. When Paterson refused, the party went to work, dug up whatever it could find, and planted the story. Now the investigation starts and the pressure on Paterson really begins. Behind closed doors, he’ll get a promise — just like Eliot Spitzer was promised — that if he resigns, he’ll never be charged.

If Paterson walks away, the Dems get what they want: Andrew Cuomo on the ticket. But if he doesn’t, and frankly I hope he doesn’t, he’ll have a helluva fight ahead of him. I don’t think he’d win re-election, but I also doubt he’d end up convicted of anything.

I’m no Paterson fan. I didn’t know who he was when he got elected. Hell, I voted against him, because I was one of the few people who remembered the Spitzer-Vacco attorney general race a decade earlier. But this recent turn of events smacks of the good ol’ boys network. Paterson hasn’t been particularly popular with that set. And this shows you exactly what happens when you don’t play ball with the corrupt senators and assemblymen we keep sending to Albany.

Anyone attacking Paterson right now needs to take a step back and think about who stands to gain the most from his downfall. Is it Johnson’s accuser? Not likely. She’s anonymous, and will probably stay that way. Lazio? Nope. He’s way better off running a campaign against a weak incumbent. Cuomo? Maybe. With Paterson out of the way, there’s no primary to run. It would save a whole lot of money.

But the ones who gain the most are the ones Paterson has been challenging all along, with his attempts at ethics reform and his bulldog attitude. When he talks about changing Albany, the corrupt party heads know that he’s not smart enough to be saying it just for votes; he actually believes it can be done. Paterson has been a threat to their way of life. And they know it.

If any good can come of this debacle, I pray that it’s the opened eyes of the electorate. But with the pathetic showing from the unquestioning media, I highly doubt it.


Attacking tech

February 25, 2010

I’m glad to see that we’re coming to a consensus about texting and driving. Most people these days recognize that it’s a dangerous activity — one that should be avoided at all costs. As my friend at aplaceforthoughts.com writes, Oprah is using her considerable influence to raise awareness, and many states are enacting laws to keep people from texting in the car.

Though I’m glad to see so many doing their part to stop this dangerous activity, it bugs me that texting has become such a target while many other dangerous activities are still legal behind the wheel, including eating, drinking, smoking, adjusting the radio, putting on makeup and reading. Yes, reading.

Just about everything on that list has been causing accidents since the dawn of the automobile age, and yet none of them has been outlawed. In fact, most of us are guilty of at least a few of them. Some of us are guilty of them every day. Personally, I drink coffee on the way to the office every day. I fiddle with the radio. I’ve even been known to scarf a burger or a burrito while barreling down the road.

Ever try eating a burrito in the car? Bad idea. Especially when the thing bursts all over your good shirt.

Studies have shown that eating and drinking hot beverages are more dangerous than talking on a cell phone or sending text messages. So why are we allowed to eat in the car? Why is every automobile equipped with a radio? Why are there NO warnings on car stereo systems that adjusting them while driving is hazardous?

The reason is simple: We all do these things. And it’s easier for lawmakers — many of whom are not particularly tech savvy — to condemn something they don’t understand, rather than look at the bigger picture.

And the bigger picture means we need a real “distracted driver” law — a broad law that penalizes drivers for any distracting behavior they take part in while driving. And that means everything.

The law wouldn’t have to prohibit a person from eating, drinking, or even talking on a cell phone. But in the case of an accident, the driver would be ticketed and their insurance would take a hit when it was found they were distracted.

When I worked as a crime reporter, I saw way more accidents caused by people fiddling with the radio or yelling at their kids than when people were talking on cell phones. To be fair, cell phones were a lot more rare in those days, but it doesn’t change the fact that distracted drivers have always been a danger on the roads.

Let’s all pledge to stop texting while driving. But if we’re going to make laws, let’s make sure we’re going after the behavior, not the technology.


Location ain’t everything (or, how you’re ruining Twitter)

February 14, 2010

Edelman Digital’s David Armano recently tweeted out a thought that pretty much sums up Twitter’s future:

It’s unlikely people will abandon networks unless they become so polluted we have no choice.

Twitter can be pretty awesome. I use it every day to catch up on local news, national news and tech news. In the past couple of weeks I’ve found a service I needed desperately, gotten some help with some tricky code, donated some cash to help fund childhood cancer research and even helped answer some InDesign questions. It’s the quickest, easiest way to crowd source, to track zeit geist and just see what people are talking about. It’s a good place to make connections (folks all over are holding tweetups to meet Twitter friends in real life) and it’s an even better place to go when you just want to scream into the void — when you have nobody to talk to but yourself.

Because of all of those things, Twitter is addictive. And when something’s as addictive as Twitter, Armano is right: Users are unlikely to walk away.  But Armano would be more accurate if he said “People will abandon the network when it becomes so polluted we have no choice.”

Enter foursquare, Gowalla, and the “check-in” phenomenon.

You could already argue that Twitter is a cesspool. Besides the bots, spammers, automated feeds and the like, there are too many people who still fill feeds with what they’re eating for dinner, what physical activity they’re partaking in or where they’re doing their laundry. Do. Not. Want. If this is you, you will be unfollowed. Let’s add to that crowd the number of PR, SM and SEO types who talk incessantly about Twitter, as if anyone with 1,000 followers or more is suddenly qualified a social media expert. And while we’re at it, let’s add the fake celebrity tweeps. I have no problem with celebrities on Twitter; I hate spokespeople for celebrities on Twitter.

If you add all that up, Twitter is already headed to that deep, dark place MySpace and Facebook entered a few years ago — that pit of despair filled with spammers, porn and slimeballs peddling junk.

But you can add to that mix the location-based check-in games, which MySpace never had.

Frankly, I don’t care where you’re having dinner. I don’t care that you’re at the airport. I don’t care that you’re at the grocery store. I will not be meeting you there, and no part of me is grateful for the knowledge of your location. I don’t care that you’re the mayor of Starbucks on Main Avenue and I don’t care who you ousted to get that title.

I skim Twitter for thoughts, recommendations, ideas. I’m looking for things that are actionable. The most annoying thing ever is “I’m at Taste of Philly” and a link…that takes me to a foursquare page. Here’s what I like: “Taste of Philadelphia has the best cheesesteaks in Syracuse!” Maybe link me to a photo of the sandwich you’re about to devour. Next time I’m out to lunch I might give the place a try, and I’ll credit you with the recommendation.

The point is there’s nothing inherently interesting about what a person is doing or where they are. The interesting part is what they’re thinking…how they view the particular place or activity. Think of it this way: Do you call your mom, best friend, significant other every time you walk into a building? Of course not. Don’t do that to your Twitter followers either. It’s lame, and it pollutes my stream. I know, I know: “If you don’t like it, don’t follow me.”

Okay. You’re unfollowed.


Just why is “conversion optimization” the “new SEO?”

February 1, 2010

According to this post at Search Engine Land, there’s a new game in town. It’s called conversion optimization, and it’s the next big money maker for the SEO crowd. Apparently the columnist has just discovered that the promise of SEOs — getting lots of people to your site — just isn’t enough anymore. Now visitors actually have to do something, or they just don’t count.

I agree with that, and I’ve said it before. I believe now, and have believed for years, that SEOs can only provide raw numbers, and way too often those numbers are accidental. The question is this: Why are SEOs turning to conversion marketing now?

Up until now, SEOs have been able to prey on frustrated website owners who just know in their hearts they could make a killing online if only they had more traffic. And since the early days of search, SEOs have always had a degree of success in providing raw numbers. But all too often the client is still not happy. Why? Because their 300 percent increase in visitors has equated to a 0 percent increase in sales. The SEO always begs off: “It’s not my fault,” he says. “I brought you traffic. That’s what you paid me for.”

Usually, this is followed up by an offer to tweak the search terms or some other tactic that will cost the client more money.

Clients aren’t having it anymore. And for good reason.

I love and hate the change from SEO to conversion marketing. Here’s why:

I hate it because it allows the same smarmy tricksters to keep stealing your money. Look, if they weren’t honest or capable before, can you believe they’re honest or capable now? I’ve been talking to clients about conversions ever since I got into this game. When a client asks me about their traffic and whether they get enough visitors, I always tell them the same thing: It’s not the number of visitors that’s important; it’s the number of customers.

I’ve always told my clients to save their SEO money and put it toward advertising. Generate desire for your product before the potential customer gets to your website. When they get there, make sure they know how to order and make the order process easy. The only time you need to convince someone to buy after they’ve gotten to your site is if they didn’t mean to be there in the first place. That’s the traffic SEOs have been generating from the beginning.

I love it because it means the tide is finally turning. People are starting to see that there are no accidental customers, and fooling people to come to your site is never the right way to start a healthy buyer-seller relationship. I love it because it will help continue to expose the big lie behind SEO — the idea that all you really need are stats and a high Google rank.

I can’t say enough what a hoax SEO is. (The only SEO you ever need should come from your designer. If your designer doesn’t know best web practices, you’ve got the wrong guy.) It says a lot that in the past couple of years, the SEO crowd first attached itself to social media, promising thousands of Twitter followers and Facebook friends, and is only now talking about conversions — way too late in the game. And I’m not just talking one or two. The Search Engine Land column has been tweeted 390 times as of this writing.

Be careful out there. These are the same people, using a different tactic.


Returns on your Facebook investment

January 14, 2010

Throughout 2009, the mantra was that all companies and organizations needed to live in the social media space. Don’t have a Facebook page? A twitter account? You aren’t on LinkedIn or uploading videos to YouTube? In 2009, you were a dinosaur.

At the dawning of this new year, we’re starting to hear something much different. This time it’s noise coming from the other side — a single, damning, awesome question: “What’s my ROI?”

I like this question because it does exactly what needed to be done throughout 2009: It rocks the so-called “social media evangelists” back onto their heels just long enough to expose the enormous heap of BS they’ve been shoveling for the last couple of years. And the best part is when the answer is, well, you’re asking a stupid question.

“Evangelists” don’t like the question because it threatens their business model — which involves taking lots of your money so they can help you, ahem, leverage social media platforms and SEO to maximize your company’s growth capacity. Or something like that. Truth is, social media doesn’t have to cost anything. The only reason it does is that the “experts” are taking advantage of the fear, uncertainty and doubt in corporate culture, where the thought of free anything is highly suspect.

Businesses are terrified of jumping into a space they don’t understand. They don’t want to look stupid on Twitter. They’re afraid of what will be posted to their Facebook page. They’re willing to pay for someone to execute a plan with precision. And for that, they’re gonna pay.

But the dirty secret is that these experts aren’t any smarter than the rest of us. They sure as hell don’t have it “figured out.” And after they’ve sucked up many thousands of your company’s dollars, they don’t want you figuring out what rats they are.

Let’s look for a minute at Twitter. It’s a cesspool of social media experts and SEOs. They amass a few thousand followers and claim to be “thought leaders.” They’ll tell you the more followers you have, the more influence you’ll have. And being part of the conversation is the important part, right? Well…read this and this. Anil Dash has done some of the most interesting reporting on follower counts on Twitter. One of his most interesting observations? He’s not replied to or retweeted more now (he has 300,000 followers) than he was when he had 15,000. And that’s because the vast majority of those following him are, as he puts it:

Some of them are inactive users, some are spammers, some just ignore the noise of the accounts that don’t interest them, like spam in an email inbox. But they can’t count as “followers” in any meaningful sense.

Here’s the thing: I’m not against social media for companies. In fact, I think social media can be a very good thing. I think it’s important for most businesses to play in the same spaces their customers play in. And it makes sense to give people a place where they can connect with you, talk to you, complain to you.

The problems, however, start when when you pay someone to make your company sound authentic on Twitter. Don’t sound authentic. Be authentic. Are you a nerd? A dork? Are you shy? Are you worried people will pick on you? Are you worried that you, as CEO of your company, are going to ruin your brand by speaking on behalf of your company?

What did your mother always tell you? Just be yourself. The people who are going to like you will like you no matter what. Don’t worry about the people who don’t. If the CEO doesn’t want to use Twitter, pick a person or two in the office you’re comfortable with. Allow them to be the eyes and ears and voices of the organization online. Set a few rules, but let people get to know them. Let them grow into the role.

In that way, social media costs next to nothing. A few minutes of time each day to send out a few lines, reply to the chatter, and monitor the conversation. Keep your investment and your expectations low. If you do that, you won’t be asking about ROI anymore. And you won’t want to kick yourself when you get a bill from an “expert.”


Dear newspapers: You’re doing it all wrong

November 28, 2009

My local newspaper (or, more correctly, the website associated with the local newspaper) recently put out a call for reader input. How, the bloggers asked, can we make the newspaper better? How can we bring you back? How are we doing?

You can see the suggestions here (hint: though the article was posted a month and a half ago, there’s not a single response).

I like to help and I do still hold a place for newspapers in my heart. So here are my suggestions and observations:

1. Stop asking me how to run your newspaper.
I’m a reader. I’m not I’m paid to run your newspaper; you are.

These pleas for public comment have been going out for years, especially as newspapers began to see their readership numbers decline. In my years in newspapering I was guilty of making similar overtures. The idea, of course, is that it makes the paper look like it cares what readers think — that it allows readers a greater stake in the newspaper. It doesn’t.

Instead, it makes newspapers look pathetic and lost. It makes them look rudderless and incapable of solid decision-making. You are supposed to be an organization of trained journalists. Don’t whine and beg readers to make your decisions for you. If you do, you undermine your authority, and your readers’ trust in you.

Speaking of undermining your authority…

2. Stop dumbing down your design.
There’s a reason everyone wears jackets and ties on TV news: Authority.

If new anchors wore T-shirts and jeans, you wouldn’t look up to them, would you? So why have all our newspapers gone from the stately, authoritative nameplates and designs to T-shirt and jeans equivalents? When I started in the newspaper business, the big metro daily’s flag screamed authority, in stately capital letters that demanded respect. The last two redesigns have reduced that nameplate, first to a friendlier font with lower-case letters and now, well, it’s become just initials, tucked away into the top left-hand corner.

Beyond that, the paper has moved to more digest items, fewer long-form stories, bigger photos, and all the little things readers have said they wanted for years. Guess what? It ain’t working.

3. Stop trying to prove you’re cool.
I’m glad you’re on Twitter. For me, the easiest, fastest way to catch up on the news of the day is to follow news outlets I trust, grab their headlines in my Twitter feed, and hit up the stories I’m interested in. So that’s working for you.

What doesn’t work are the news stories about Twitter, the constant references to your Twitter feeds in the newspaper, quoting Twitter feeds in the newspaper. It wastes valuable newsprint and it alienates readers who aren’t on Twitter — and that’s the majority of your readers. In fact, it’s more than 80 percent of your readers.

Speaking of Twitter…

4. Stop cluttering your Twitter feed with stories you didn’t write.
I don’t follow you for world and national news.

The Associated Press is a great resource for newspapers, if used properly. A good newspaper will include bits of world and national news of importance, and local writers and papers are just not equipped to cover that stuff. But national stories do not belong on local news websites unless they’ve been localized. I get my national news from sources with the resources to cover those stories. I follow them on Twitter, or I visit them daily. Including such stories on your websites and feeding them to Twitter waters down your strength, which should be covering local news.

The same really should go for the newspaper as well. More care needs to be put into what wire stories are chosen for the print editions, and in every possible case, those wire stories should be localized. If there’s not a local angle, why put it in the local paper?

I am a fan of newspapers. I spend every Saturday and Sunday morning with mine. And every weekend, I struggle with whether I will continue my subscription. As the quality of local coverage drops, the paper’s usefulness declines as well.

Unfortunately, nearly everything they’ve done to bring readers back drives readers the other way.

So maybe they really do need help.

Cuz it’s almost too late.


Snake Oil: Losing your money on SEO

October 12, 2009

As a web developer, nothing has been more frustrating over the years than talking to clients who’ve spent big bucks on SEO firms in hopes of raising their Google search rankings. The one that really sticks out in my mind is a client who spent several thousand dollars with an SEO firm for a report and recommendations for increasing her traffic; my job was to take several thousand dollars more of her money to implement those suggestions.

To be fair, many of the suggestions were solid: include meta-tags, use the right title tag, use alt-tags on your images, make sure your text includes your search terms. But added to those suggestions were several that just blew my mind. I won’t go into them, because it’s too tangential, but suffice to say they would have made the site unreadable for most visitors, and the text would clearly have been written for search engines instead of people.

For any business running a website, it’s heartbreaking to have a great product or service, only to find your traffic nonexistent and your search rank at the bottom of the pile. SEOs prey on that feeling of helplessness and, for a steep price, offer you hope. Unfortunately, if you read the fine print, they’ll admit they can’t promise you more traffic or — more importantly — conversions. And they shouldn’t.

Generally speaking, the companies with the best search rank are exactly who you’d expect them to be. They’re established businesses that already boast lots of traffic. In that way, the Internet as an ecosystem is no different than the actual business world. If I want to buy a computer, odds are the first places that will spring to mind are Best Buy or Dell or HP — not Chuck’s Computer Warehouse in Great Bend. Chuck’s been in business now for six months. He builds the machines in his basement, but uses substantially the same parts as the big boys. If Chuck wants to compete with the big boys, how does he do that? If he’s running a primarily Internet-based business, the temptation is to hire an SEO firm and get his site on the first page of Google search results for, say “buy a computer.” Right?

HP, Dell and Best Buy didn’t get where they are by SEO alone. They got there using tried-and-true advertising — print, television, radio, online. As power players, they’ve held quite a bit of authority over the computer sales market for a considerable amount of time. But if you search “buy a computer” on Google right now, HP and Best Buy don’t even show up on page 1. Instead, you get newegg.com, tigerdirect.com and a few others. Some of which I’ve never heard of, and would never send my money to. But that’s the company Chuck would be in with the help of an SEO. He may see a dramatic spike in traffic, but will it translate into sales?

SEO can’t sell a computer. Maybe it will drive traffic, but those numbers are false comfort; they’re often inflated and many of the “visits” you track are accidental or worse. You don’t want someone stumbling on your website; you want them heading there on purpose with the intent to buy.

I’d venture to guess that almost nobody visits the Dell website just to hang out. You visit when you’re ready to buy a computer. The same thing applies to Chuck. If he’s got a great search rank and lots of traffic but isn’t selling anything, the immediate reaction is that his deals aren’t good, right?

Not really. Chuck’s problem may be that his website looks unprofessional, and thus his business seems untrustworthy. Or it could just be that he isn’t getting the traffic he really needs: direct traffic from people who are ready to buy. There is only one way to get that traffic: Advertising.

Save the money you’d spend on SEO and put it into advertising. Carefully identify your target demographic and try different ways of reaching them. Create a real ad campaign that creates top-of-mind awareness for your company or product. Make sure it can’t be ignored (remember Head On? Yeah, apply directly to the forehead), and advertise in places you know your target demographic visits. Chuck needn’t worry about advertising in the local newspaper, but if he can afford an ad with C-NET, he might actually see some results. But if Chuck is only interested in selling to the local market, national ads are the exact wrong way to go. And Chuck must make sure to tell his story: What makes Chuck’s computers different or better than his competitors?

The bottom line is this: You want your site to be a destination. If customers aren’t thinking of you before they type in their search terms, seeing your name in their search results will not change their mind. Rather than focusing on visits from those who stumble across your site, focus on getting visitors who went there on purpose — with money in hand, ready to buy.