Greekgeek's Online Odyssey - Hubpages and Online Article Writing Tips

Thinky Thoughts

A Squidoo Riddle

Fluff is not allowed to answer this (unless he knows who’s responsible for it).

For several months now, there has been a Squidoo Easter Egg on every lens that gives me flashbacks to the pre-internet of the 1980s. It’s both blazingly obvious and utterly invisible. Do you know what it is?

It surprised me when it first appeared, because it was a bit of unnecessary “stuff” added at the same time that four years worth of accumulated code was tidied up and streamlined. But I suppose search engines know to skip it.

Keywords Mean Speaking Your Readers’ Language

A post in SquidU dismissed keyword research in this way:

Keyword research is for writers who are not interested in what they write, they are interested to collect traffic and then the money by selling things. So they skim the net for keywords and if they think the keywords can bring profit they use them and start to write about the topic.

Unsurprisingly, this elicited some strong responses. I understand the point the author was trying to make — content farms have shown the worst of keyword research, and really DO follow the approach described above — but that’s not how keyword research should work, nor does it have to.

As a poet, writer, and sometime student of languages (BA and MA in classics), I have been fascinated by the concept of keywords, the use of words as signposts to to help people find what they’re looking for in a nearly infinite sea of words, the web. It’s a powerful new use of words whose potential we’re still figuring out. In some ways it reminds me of the moment in cultural evolution when writing itself began to play a major role, when knowledge was no longer limited to what you could memorize and repeat in rhyme. The storytellers were appalled that oral traditions were dying, but writing unlocked a new potential of language which was not possible before.

The thing that fascinates me about keywords is that they are at the same time distilling a whole page down to a phrase which like a yantra, and on the other hand, they are words which function not simply as units of meaning, but as functional links, like the parts of a chromosome which are not there simply to contain genetic information but which serve to buffer the chromosome from damage or otherwise serve in a functional, utilitarian way. Keywords are like the labels on file folders. You reach for them to find what’s contained inside.

Keywords have been much on my mind these last few years. The final chapter of my abandoned dissertation was going to discuss keywords. Therefore, I wrote an impassioned rebuttal to the claim that writers who use keywords don’t care about their writing:

Keyword research is understanding what language people use to talk about the topic you are interested in, and speaking their language.


Squidoo’s Beginnings: How It Started

On my sticky notes of Squidoo lens ideas, I’ve had one grandiose note sitting in the idea box forever: “Squidoo then and now  — how to realize Seth’s vision.” This week, I finally got around to tackling it.

I found more questions than answers. And then I realized that of course, we all have different ways to realize Seth’s vision, because if we all did the same thing, it wouldn’t match his vision.

Therefore, I made THIS lens:

Squidoo’s Beginnings: A Look Back

And what we can learn from them.


My goal with this lens is to look back at how Squidoo started, and learn what it was like then, what it was for, and what Seth Godin’s original vision for a lens actually was.

Then I trace some… just SOME! … of the way the site, the community, and our concept of a lens developed.

It’s shaped by my own experience of Squidoo’s growth and changes. Your experience will be different, and that’s good. Examine your own memories of how Squidoo’s changed and think about them. Consider the threads I’ve picked out. Especially, consider the questions: what is a lens? What is it for? What is Squidoo all about?

Over time, the answers to those questions have changed… but not entirely. Some things have remained constant. What are they?

Those answers may help guide you in finding your very own way to Squidoo.

Online Forums: No, I Do NOT Want an Argument

I’ve been watching online communities go through their biorhythms for 22 years now, and the same patterns happen again and again. I still screw up now and again, but at least I’ve learned to recognize the steps of the dance.

This is what I’ve learned.

Text-Based Communication Isn’t

Everybody knows that text-based communication strips out tone. Somehow, posts tend to sound sharper, blunter, more snide or sarcastic or unpleasant than when you can see soft eyes or a smile to add a little warmth to people’s statements.

Crowdsourcing Outrage

Another problem is the speed of communication. Somebody posts a complaint, and it’s like a spark in dry tinder: it sets off everybody, and everybody has an opinion, and an admin can stop by after 5 hours and find a wildfire raging. It is so dangerously easy to crowdsource outrage.

Posting Online Is Like Posting Drunk

As a species, we have learned how to interact in social groups to survive. Unconsciously, we monitor those around us for clues showing how our words are striking people. Over the millennia, those who weren’t adept at reading conversations and adapting to public opinion got hit with a rock, stabbed, shot, or otherwise removed from the population. Therefore, learning to communicate our views without pissing people off is a deep-seated survival mechanism.

Online, we lose 99% of the cues and signals from face-to-face and group interaction. It’s like trying to do archery wearing four pairs of dark sunglasses. Suddenly, we’re all like my friend Cal who puts his foot in his mouth up to the kneecap and never notices he’s shocked half the room and offended the other half. We’re asserting ourselves without the benefit of our built-in inhibitions and self-filters that help us function smoothly in social settings. Thanks to that lack of inhibitions, it’s like being drunk.

This can sometimes be a positive, because people share things with great frankness. The flip side, however, is obvious.

Counteracting the Problem

As I’ve stated on more than one occasion, the reason why I have a harpy avatar (actually a siren) is to remind myself with every post to watch my claws. That’s precisely because I’ve thrown a lot of rocks, and bear the scars of others. I’ve got a stubborn streak a mile wide, dig my heels in, and try to convince, persuade and prove with research and lengthy argument. I get very worked up about some topics, just like everyone else.

Yet how often does an online argument really matter?  Sometimes, when money or fairness to others is involved, one has to speak up. Even then, if it’s not going to matter or be remembered six months from now, it probably doesn’t matter now. We use online forums to post our content, do business and exchange ideas, share comments and support one another. When it stops being about any of those things, personally, I walk away.

Which brings me to the trigger for this post.

Defending Ourselves…Does It Help?

Do as I say, not as I do.

Recently, in response to a critical post that I felt was aimed at me, I responded defensively. Two days later I came back from a RL fender bender, shaken up and  seeking some support on Squidoo, only to find a furious debate raging after the original poster called me “abusive.” Gack.

I’m not here to rehash that conversation, although that is why I’ve been avoiding SquidU lately. It upset me more than I let on. Which is silly of me, in light of many other incredibly generous and kind comments directed my way.

At any rate, my point is this. When each person feels like she’s been attacked by the other, unless you can kiss and make up, continuing to debate will only exacerbate the situation. It doesn’t matter who’s right. It doesn’t matter who started it. It’s become a barfight, and there are bystanders trying to drink their beer.

Name-calling or fingerpointing is against SquidU’s rules and won’t help. But surely, we should be able to defend ourselves? You’d think so. Unfortunately, due to the problems with the text-based medium I mentioned above, it’s nearly impossible to defend yourself without escalating tensions.

When you’re frustrated and upset, that is precisely when the “posting while drunk” effect is at its worst.

Some Other Approaches to Try

If the person who’s attacked you really is being unfair, abusive, and failing to respect community rules of conduct, three things can happen.

  • If you’ve conducted yourself fairly and generously, other members will speak up for you. Or, at the least, your actions will speak for themselves.
  • You report the comment privately to the moderators. The moderator locks the thread and/or takes action against your attacker.
  • You report an attack to the moderator, and the moderator fails to intervene. Golly, that sucks, doesn’t it? But maybe it’s not worth pursuing. Go do something productive and see if that helps you feel better.

Occasionally, when I am extremely upset, I vent my frustrations privately in the report box to the moderator, as if I were using it as a confession box, so that I don’t let my anger leak out in public. Oddly, I received my last moderator job from an admin who appreciated my discretion…even though he was sometimes the target of my private verbal diatribes.

I digress. The bottom line is this.

When we get into a forum debate that’s stupid and petty and annoying and frustrating, chances are, a year from now, it really won’t matter. Is it really worth continuing the conversation? Isn’t it more likely that the fight will just drag on, and people will keep sniping, squabbling, and refusing to listen to each other? Is the person you’re arguing with really going to listen to you?

When that seems to be the way the wind is blowing, I try to make myself step out and get back to work.

Of course, it’s hard to step away without responding when someone accuses you of something that you did not do. You may feel you need to say, “I did not do that.” But if that’s all you say, and then you leave (and contact the moderator), then the truth is where it needs to be. If you conduct yourself with honor, generosity, and responsibility, the accusation will most likely redound on the accuser, because the community knows better.

Google Panda/Farmer Update Cont’d

I thought I’d check back in on Squidoo and Hubpages now that the Google Farmer Update (Panda update) has had some time to work. Short-term results can suggest major upheavals, but it’s the long-term stats that really mean something.

Here’s today’s traffic charts from Quantcast, showing that Hubpages traffic has stabilized:

Google Panda Update Impact on Hubpages and Squidoo

Keep in mind that the update was only for Google’s US search engine. It hasn’t yet been unleashed globally. The drop in U.S. users is included in “global” as well as “local” results.

My prediction, based on what I’m seeing, is that after this change, Hubpages’ traffic is going to be nearly the same as Squidoo’s. It already is within the US.

The Spam’s the Thing?

Jennifer Ledbetter of made a mini study of specific spam phrases confirming by the numbers my guess in my last post on the Farmer Update: Squidoo’s ongoing spam crackdown means it has fewer (but alas, still some) pages on the most spammy topics than Hubpages and several other sites. This DOES explain why didn’t lose places in the SERPs: it has even fewer pages matching these spam phrases.

Jennifer didn’t test this, but we both also argued — in different ways — that Hubpages’ much, much stricter policy on outbound links may be causing it some trouble. She pointed out that links on Hubs are nofollowed until you’ve reached a certain status. I related my experience of having all my hubs locked for having one link on each of them to cite the source of my photos. Squidoo’s got a nine outbound link per domain limit, instead, and it nofollows affiliate links in its merchant modules.

Various other ideas have been thrown out to explain the change. Another thing I pointed out is the significantly lower bounce rate of Squidoo compared to Hubpages, ezinearticles, and (of course) mahalo.

There’s just one problem.

The Quantcast traffic charts show Hubpages U.S. traffic simply dropped back to Squidoo’s levels.

If my explanations and Potpiegirl’s  guess about outbound links were correct, Squidoo should now be outperforming Hubpages. But it’s not. They’re now about the same.

Jennifer’s spam study shows that Squidoo has fewer pages than Hubpages on the spammy topics she chose to test, but not all that much less. The last phrase she checked (“tv for pc”) actually had more pages on Squidoo than Hubpages. (It really shouldn’t be filtered as spam; how to watch television on a PC is a reasonable query. It’s just gotten targeted by a lot of spammers trying to cash in on a popular search).

So my vote is on the spam being the deciding factor — as it should be — about how Google’s picking “quality” sites.  Let’s keep reporting and flagging it when we see it, folks, and for goodness’ sake don’t write on a Squiddont topic! Also, don’t give up on Hubpages. It’s gotten humbled, but it’s no worse off than Squidoo. And keeping eggs in different baskets is always a good practice.

The Google Farmer Update and Squidoo

Google Farmer Update: Early Returns

So, the manure has hit the rotary blades, and we’re starting to see some results from Google declaring war on so-called “Content Farms” in 2011. (When even mainstream news media hears about it, you know it’s big.)  Various pundits and industry experts had ideas on what content farms are, but until we saw the traffic shake-up, we couldn’t be sure how Google defined them.

Of course, I hear the little Michael Martinez devil’s advocate on my shoulder screaming “insufficient sample size, short-term data is inferior to long-term data”! but with that caveat, we’ve already got some apparent results.

Squidoo users, for the most part, haven’t seen any changes in traffic:

Squidoo Traffic Farmer Update


Hubpage users are feeling some pain (it’s all over their user forums), which is reflected in the Quantcast traffic data:

Hubpages Traffic Google Farmer Update


Go play with Quantcast to test your own favorites. Some aren’t available yet (ehow, ezinearticles), or are CLOAKED (, surprise surprise) so Quantcast can’t measure them.

For the big picture, see Danny Sullivan’s “Number Crunchers: Who Lost In Google’s “Farmer” Algorithm Change?” on SearchEngineLand, although Squidoo is too small a squid to have attracted detailed stat analysis by the experts, unfortunately.

My own traffic stats reflect what Quantcast saw: in fact, my traffic has been increasing slightly since the change (repeat: limited sample size) not dropping.

So what does this all mean for Squidoo users, most of whom publish on a variety of other platforms as well (including Hubpages)?


The Tao of SEO

The most popular form of SEO boils down to:

  • researching popular searches related to one’s topic
  • scouting the competition for those terms and one’s niche
  • strategic use of keywords on a webpage and in links to that page

But “Search Engine Optimization” does not only mean keyword research, even if that’s an important and powerful method. Nor does SEO only mean optimizing for Google, even if that’s usually the biggest source of search engine traffic in the English-speaking world.

“Search engine optimization” simply means techniques for getting search engines to send traffic to your pages. We can talk about linkbuilding (which I don’t do enough of), on-page optimization, image optimization, Squidoo tags, cross-linking — but it all goes back to people searching for things, and finding those things on your pages.


People. Places. Objects. Nouns.

The tao of SEO is speaking in terms that someone else cares about, wants to know about, or might look for. The more concrete, specific vocabulary you use, the more likely your words may intersect with things people search for.

Don’t just say you took your dog to the park. Say your dog is a labradoodle, and you take it to play frisbee at Peppergrass Park. Don’t just say you like fish. Say you’re crazy about ikura (salmon roe) sushi with a dab of wasabi.

Somewhere, somebody might be looking for precisely those things.

They may append certain adjectives and descriptives to the nouns: cheapest, free, unique, homemade, best, review of, top ten. But nouns are common and essential in most searches.

There is another kind of popular search besides noun-phrases: question-phrases like “how can I…?” or “what is the HTML code for…?” or “how many…?” or “how hot is…?” or “When did….?” These often make great section headers or first sentences of paragraphs.

In my creative writing, I find myself snipping out excessive use of names and description, favoring nuanced language that implies more than it says. On my Squidoo pages, I replace pronouns with nouns and say what I mean. Search engines can’t read between the lines.

Of course, people can read between the lines, so you have to be careful not to overdo it. A huge mass of nouns will lose reader interest, like reading the phone book aloud. But usually, you can state the obvious in a way that’s compelling to readers as well as helpful to search engines.

The tao of SEO is to find phrases that express what you want and need to say in concrete, specific ways that search engines notice. Then your pages won’t just rank for one or two big keyword searches. They’ll pick up all kinds of little searches, phrases that perhaps no one has ever searched before,  and that your competition has not tried to optimize for.

You can’t always write concretely. Sometimes you need to write on abstract concepts, ideas, beliefs, opinions, feelings that just don’t lend themselves to specific, searchable language. But when you can, state precisely what you mean. Skip filler. Skip introductions. Get to the point.

Get Traffic By Designing for Visually Impaired Web Users

Enhanced web accessibility means enhanced SEO

Visually impaired users use screen readers, i.e. voice software, to browse the web. There’s a lot more people surfing the web this way than you’d think. They are dependent on the text we use and the organization of web pages to help them navigate.

Search engines, too, are text-dependent. They need keywords to help them analyze page content. They need structure like headings and  image file names to tell them what each section and image is. They use words in bold, links, and certain key parts of each page to help them learn their way around.

Designing for human users and search engines often forces us to juggle two conflicting priorities: human readability versus targeting keywords. In this case, we’ve got a win-win situation: designing for people will help search engines get what we’re trying to say.

A Squidoo Example

A Squidoo page which I just critiqued in SquidU’s Critique Me forum got me to thinking about all this. It’s a simple page: Funny Pie Charts. It’s a collection of funny pictures. The page’s author did a good job of making the page more accessible for search engines by choosing a short phrase and using it in the image’s file name, alt text, and title text. (Title text is optional text that pops up when you hover your cursor over a link. You put it into  link tag like this:  <a href=”link goes here” title=”hover text goes here”>clickable text</a>. Each image was linked back to the page it came from, so there was a place to include title text).

I suggested that the “Funny Pie Charts” author could leverage search engine traffic even more by varying the phrase in the image file name, alt text, and title text. Then I thought about people using screen readers. They won’t get the jokes, because the jokes only appear in the graph itself. For example, there’s a graph on “What Zombies Do” that includes “Dance with Michael Jackson”.

If the alt-text for each image included the funniest two or three options from the graph, then people using screen readers could enjoy the page too. And search engines would see those words. Win!

The Long Tail, Again

If you write humor or any content with web accessibility in mind, you’re chasing the long tail: that large untapped reservoir of niches, under-served target audiences, and people with special interests and intense passions who will care more about your page on wombat widgets than the huge mainstream population who read any sort of widget webpages or buy any old widgets. You may not be able to compete in the widgets market, because the widget market is saturated. There’s a million widget webpages and widget producers and big-name widget brands out there. But by golly, you can compete on wombat widgets.

So write for the screen reader crowd. Give them content to read and funny pages to laugh about which they’ll share and like and email to their friends. The next time you make a Lolcat, give it an alt-name that includes the caption found in the graphic, and let them enjoy the joke.

How to Design Pages for Screen Readers

How do we design for screen readers? There’s a lot of good guides out there, but here’s a lengthy yet incredibly information-packed Guidelines for Accessible and Usable Websites that includes all kinds of tips about how people with screen readers navigate webpages and how to shape your content to help them along.

Here’s five things which we can do:

  • Use alt-text to make clear what’s in a picture, especially any text in the graphic. Exception: don’t waste time identifying a decorative graphic that provides no content, only a visual accent.
  • Start each paragraph, header, and link with words that give readers a clue what’s in the rest of that section.
  • Establish patterns and repeat them. For example, cookbooks present recipes in the same order on every page: ingredients on the left, graphic on the right, step-by-step instructions below.
  • When possible, avoid terms that voice software is likely to mangle. Abbreviations, cute spellings, and compound words often come out funny.  For example, “homepage” gets mispronounced, so use “home page,” two words. In this post, I’ve used “web page” and “file name” instead of running them together as I usually do.
  • Don’t waste readers’ time. Be brief. (Oh, I have a hard time on this one.)

Speaking of which:


Digg the SEO Vampire: It Drinks Your Backlinks Dry

Just in time for Hallowe’en, I have an SEO horror story that’s happening right now. You may even be a victim!

You think submitting your page to Digg will help SEO, right? Or at least, it can’t hurt, can it?

Ha. Ahaha. Ahahaha.

In September ’09, Digg announced that links would be NoFollow until they proved themselves worthy (lots of Diggs). And I vaguely remember a flap about the DiggBar totally screwing up SEO. I didn’t follow the story closely because I don’t use social media for SEO: social media means promoting your site to people, whereas SEO means promoting your site to search engines.


“You Have No Right to Traffic”

I was just rereading Seth Godin’s The Nine Free Things Every Site (Or Lens!) Should Do, which is the link SquidU’s Answer Deck gives you if you click “How do I get more traffic?”

As usual, Seth is simple and short, whereas my own 3-part Squidoo tips tutorial on how to build web traffic is in-depth and too long.

One of Seth’s points jumped out at me:

You have no right to traffic. If you’re lucky, and GOOD, you earn some.

You’ll earn it when you do something daring, interesting, useful, provocative, free, compelling, emotional or urgent.


I’ve said this in other ways, but never quite so bluntly: YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO [WEB] TRAFFIC.

There are millions of fascinating, useful, incredible, wonderful, exactly-what-people-want web pages out there. A web user will never see more than a tiny fraction of them. So why should anyone pick your page, out of all those pages, to visit? Why stay there? Why read it?

It’s up to you to make it worth their time.