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

The Mobile Web on Squidoo and Hubpages

Yep, it’s another geeky stats post trying to figure out “what’s going on with our traffic?”  using two similar article-publishing sites to contrast and compare trends.

Squidoo launched its “responsive” layout on Friday, December 7, 2012, hoping to cash in on the skyrocketing use of mobile devices to browse the web. Many of us had emailed HQ about the need to adapt to mobile/tablets over the past few years, so we certainly understood the reasons for the change, if not the timing. But the proof is in the pudding. How did the Responsive Layout launch impact traffic?

I’m kicking myself for not doing a screengrab of Quantcast’s traffic tracking before the changeover, showing what percentage of Squidoo visitors came in through mobile, but I’ve at least got that info from my own Google Analytics (see below).

However, we can do a current comparison of Squidoo vs. Hubpages mobile traffic.

But first, a baseline. Quantcast shows that Squidoo’s overall (mobile and desktop) traffic remains above Hubpages — barely — although it has been dropping for a few months. Squidoo is probably more dependent on holiday shopping:

Squidoo traffic vs. Hubpages traffic, August 2012 through Feb 2013.

Quantcast only gives 1-month data for mobile, but I’ve seen that Hubpages has always drawn more mobile traffic than Squidoo, despite having slightly less traffic overall for most of the past two years. Even after Squidoo’s responsive layout update, this is still true…

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Updating Squidoo Lenses: My 2013 Checklist

Squidoo progress Excel Spreadsheet

My yearly progress spreadsheet helps me track progress and seasonal trends.

Whew, 2012 was quite a roller coaster of a year for me on Squidoo and beyond.

The good: I achieved a 68% increase in online earnings, and I began an earnest push to diversify beyond Squidoo, and succeeded at least a little (see bottom of my payouts chart).

The bad: Pinterest members began copying and uploading our photos en masse, so that we were competing with ourselves for image traffic, and third-party websites began using pinned images to make money. Hubpages, where I’ve had the most luck in diversification, had its Google ups and downs and its share of disruptive policy changes. Later, along with many Squidoo members, I lost 34% of my Google traffic to Squidoo around November 15. Accordingly, my November Squidoo earnings saw a 33% drop, when normally my November earnings are up. December saw a couple of Squidoo Surprises that required emergency triage to all our lenses. Also, the old by-and-for-lensmasters SquidU community was closed down by HQ and resurrected by Christene.

I’m tired. I’ve been tired. All of the above, plus arthritis, have left me exhausted and discouraged. So I’ve been taking a break from Squidoo and article sites in general. However, January’s almost over, and it’s time to get back in the saddle.

This year, rather than writing new content on Squidoo, I’m mostly going to write elsewhere and just do maintenance on my Squidoo portfolio.

Here’s a checklist of what I do to update each lens. I’m not gonna do all these changes on every lens all at one sitting. Instead, I’ve created an “Update log” spreadsheet with “type of update” as the column headers, lenses as the rows. When I make an update, I’ll note it in the appropriate column/row with the date.

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Cheat Sheet for Dealing With Squidoo’s New Flexible Layout

My CSS Cheat Sheet for Converting Fixed-Width into Flexible Layouts

Originally posted here. (Now tweaked and revised.)

  • The first thing you should do is ask yourself, “Is this CSS absolutely necessary, or can I drop it?” See the postscript below for tips about how and when to use CSS. Usually, the best solution is, “Drop it!”
  • Testing: Try Screenfly Emulator or Responsive Layout Emulator, or if both of those are being crabby, drag the right-hand edge of your window around to simulate different screen sizes.
  • Replace font sizes and line heights in pixels with points or percentage. (E.g. 110% = “a little larger than the standard font size.”)
  • To center an image or a paragraph horizontally, use style=”margin: 0px auto;”
  • <br style=”clear:both;”> breaks you out of float-mode and usually stops things from spilling into places they don’t belong. (The “zigzaggy” stairstep effect, e.g. For that problem, put <br style=”clear:both;”> between each “step” of the staircase.)
  • Convert your old fixed-width dimensions by doing a little math. Say you used to have a paragraph 250 pixels wide. Squidoo’s old column width was 590 pixels. 250 ÷ 590 = .42, so change width:250px;   to width:42%; 
  • If all the widths of elements in a horizontal area add up to more than 100%, the last item will wrap onto the next row. This sometimes happens if you’ve got small elements like borders adding a few pixels of width to your total. In that case, trim the width of the elements you can control by 1-2% to leave more wiggle room.
  • You may need to set the outermost container width to 100%. If something’s shrinking to fit, and you want it to extend to the margins, that’s what to do.
  • When using percentages, you usually have to specify a paragraph or image’s size in width rather than height. Percentage of the containing area’s height is meaningless, because the bottom of the page is usually off the bottom of the screen. Percentage of the containing area’s width makes sense, because the right margin of a page is usually visible.
  • The only time you dare specify height is with graphics small enough that they’re not likely to spill into the margin even on phone-sized screens. Use Dee’s handy-dandy Screenfly emulator to check.
  • Let borders and rounded corners remain fixed-width (pixels). They are usually not big enough to spill over onto the margins, and they behave quite oddly when changed to percentages.
  • Advanced: When doing side-by-side layouts, consider using the style attribute min-width: 200px; to say, “don’t shrink this image (or design element) smaller than 200 pixels.” On small phone screens, which are 240 or 320 pixels wide, this will force side-by-side layouts to switch to a single column, so you don’t end up with teeny tiny images. You may also set a max-width, if your images start looking silly at large sizes.
  • Advanced: If you’ve got a colored or bordered paragraph containing a floated graphic and text, you will find that the floated graphic tends to spill out past the bottom of the paragraph when you switch dimensions to percentages. The best solution is to get rid of the color or border on the paragraph. But if you really, really have a good reason for the colored paragraph, this worked for me: <p style=”background-color: #eee; width:100%;”><span style=”display: block;”><img src=”blah” style=”float: left; blah blah;”>Text text text</span><br style=”clear: both;”></p>
  • Advanced: 3-items-across layout for Zazzle & other affiliate items: <p style=”width: 25%; padding: 2%; margin-right: 2%; margin-bottom: 2%; text-align: center; font-size: 80%;”><a href=”productLink” rel=”nofollow” style=”text-decoration:none;”><img src=”imgURL” alt=”altname” style=”width: 90%; margin: auto;”><br>ProductName<br><b style=”margin:auto;display:block;width:60%;line-height:110%; font-size: 70%; color:#fff;background-color:#f90;border-radius: 4px; padding:2%;”>View on Zazzle</b></a></p>

Postscript: How and When to Use CSS

CSS commands, the style=”blah blah blah”  part tucked inside of an HTML <tag>, let you control visual decoration and layout separately from HTML. If HTML says, “this is a hat,” CSS says, “size 10 with a red brim.” If HTML says, “this is a brick,” CSS says, “move it two inches to the right.” If HTML says, “this is a paragraph,” CSS says, “200 pixels wide with a dashed border and gray background.”

People tend to use CSS for decoration, but in fact, it’s better to use CSS only to indicate units of the page that function in a special way.

For example, adding color to links is more than mere decoration; it informs the reader that these words are links. A side-by-side display of product images with captions under them acts like a store display, telling the visitor, these are products, and allowing the customer to compare, browse, pick and choose. It’s functional, not just for pretty.

I have mostly avoided using colored or shaded paragraphs except for one special purpose: quotations or excerpts, when I’m alternating between quoting something and commenting on it. What’s the function of that CSS? Its purpose is to make clear which words are mine, which words are someone else’s. And I’m only going to do that on a page where I’m alternating between the two, not a simply one-off quotation or occasional quotes.

I also use CSS for navigation elements, on rare occasions. Usually, the navigation options like the “Table of Contents” in the introduction module are adequate, and don’t need to be replaced.

I wasn’t always this strict about CSS. So in reviewing old lenses, I’ve been asking myself, “Is this CSS providing useful information to the reader? Is it functional? Or is it just a paint job?” I’m dropping 99% of my “decorative” CSS. That very especially includes colored and bordered paragraphs, which are the web equivalent of a reader marking a book’s text with  colored highlighter pens and underlines.

Recovering From a Squidoo Surprise

Here we go again

As most members know by now, Squidoo just unleashed a dramatically different layout two weeks before Christmas. This fits a pattern: Squidoo typically launches changes with little or no warning (that one was released on December 21, 2010, and it managed to throw some top-earning lenses into WIP, hiding them entirely from view and killing their tier earnings for the month.) Clearly, Squidoo thinks we have far too much time on our hands during the holidays.

If you’ve got hundreds of lenses, it may take days to salvage and check all of them. So how do we prioritize? Well, I’ve discovered a handy Excel trick to list all our lenses in order of how much they earn, which can aid in triage assessment.

But first, let’s look at some possible ways to repair layout problems caused by this so-called “Responsive” update (as a major iPad user, the old Squidoo layout gave me no trouble, whereas this one does):

  • [UPDATE] SquidTool’s creator A3 Labs has been on the ball and has updated SquidTools to work with Squidoo’s new layout. See this announcement post from A3 Labs explaining the fixes, and/or Annie’s tutorial on how to get these repairs to fix old Squidtools layouts.
  • For what it’s worth, most of my templates from my Amazon Associates Links Tutorial seem to be working under the new layout. Exception is the five-items-across. The rest are flexible enough to cope with varying screen sizes.
  • Create smallish fixed-width building blocks that flow and wrap around like the words in this paragraph when they hit the right-hand margin. By “building blocks,” I mean a box-shaped unit such as one image plus its caption underneath and maybe a “buy” button. My How to Align Image Side-by-Side templates all work this way, and as far as I can see, I think they’re all still behaving correctly.
  • One might be able to change dimensions to percentages, so that layout elements stay proportional to the page width. For instance, with a three-in-a-row layout, set the width of each of the three “building blocks” to 30% with a margin-right of 2% to give a little padding and still leave a smidge of wiggle room for borders.  But there’s a problem with this, too, as kburns notes: 30% of the screen width on a smartphone is tiny, too small for images. [UPDATE: See my next post: Cheat Sheet for Converting fixed-width to flexible-width Squidoo layouts. I think I’ve gotten the hang of it now.]
  • People who really know CSS backwards and forwards may find that some percentage-width problems are solved by adding max-width or min-width: making bits of a layout stretchy and flexible, but not infinitely so.

WHATEVER YOU DO: Keep in mind that Squidoo’s width and font sizes now vary on the fly to fit people’s screens and devices, so you can’t assume anyone else’s column width will be the same as it is on your computer. One quick way to check is to grab the lower right-hand corner of your browser window (if you can) and drag it left and right to view the lens resizing itself to fit the new window size. Also, check Screenfly (thanks, dee) to see how it will look on an iPad and other devices.

NOW, ABOUT THAT TRIAGE:

This was what I was going to post before I got distracted trying to solve layout issues (note: I cannot answer any more questions now, as I’ve only managed to check/repair 11 of my 431 lenses since yesterday and I’ve gotta get back to them).

If you have over a hundred lenses, it seems daunting to figure out where to start. Here’s a five-minute exercise you can do with Excel to help you find and prioritize your top-earning lenses on Squidoo.

  1. Go to the big blue Dashboard Stats tab. (that link takes you there.)
  2. Choose “My Payments” and “Life to Date” in the pulldown menus at the bottom, and click “go”. Go to the bathroom while that loads in. [UPDATE: you might want to set it to “Previous 3 months” instead; old lenses may have earned more historically, but may not be top earners now.]
  3. Click “Download report as TSV” at upper right-ish.
  4. Open the result in Excel.
  5. Select All, then, under the Data > Sort… box, Sort By Lens Title (or URL).
  6. Choose “Subtotals” under the Data menu and click OK.
  7. Now at the top of the left-hand corner, you should see buttons for “1 2 3.” Click the 2, and it should hide all the different month-by-month payouts for each lens and show you just the total lifetime earnings for each lens. (If you can’t find the numbers, under the Data > Group and Outline submenu, choose “hide detail” to collapse everything and then “show detail” to get the summary. This is dumb but it works.)
  8. Under the “Data” menu, choose “Sort” again and Sort by “Total,” Descending.
Of course, this only tells you about Squidoo earnings, not lenses that earn most of their income through affiliate sales with third party programs like Amazon. On Amazon, you could perform the above procedure on their Earnings Reports, which could at least tell you what items are selling most on your lenses.

Keyword Research and Competition: Something Else to Consider

A lot of us do a basic form of keyword research of one kind or another, using tools like Google’s to learn what search phrases are relevant to our topic and how often those phrases are searched.

By using the words real people use to search our topic, we have a better chance of getting search engines to send us those visitors. Obvious, right? Keyword research is all about finding a common language with our readers.

 

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Ouch! Squidoo Traffic Went Kablooie on Nov 17

Recent Daily Traffic for my Squidoo Lenses

Around November 17, 2012, Squidoo and many sites across the web experienced major traffic changes. In Squidoo’s case, it was the worst drop I’ve seen in years.

Barry Schwartz of Seoroundtable got a brief nonanswer from Google about it. One thing is clear: it’s not a Panda update. Google said Panda would be updated in the next week.

I don’t think it’s an EMD update, because that specifically targets domain names — the website part of a URL, not the individual page’s filename. (squidoo.com = domain name, /my-cool-lens = the filename.)  I also don’t think it’s Penguin, because the main target of Penguin is sites using artificial link schemes and other heavy-duty black hat SEO practices which I think are beyond the capacity and budget of even the most spammy Squidoo lensmasters.

So what happened? Here’s a couple half-assed theories. Also, for my own enlightenment, I’ve compiled Squidoo sitewide traffic graphs for the past five years to see how our autumn traffic normally fluctuates. Bad news: there IS no “normal.”

P.S. Credit Where Due: Thanks to Victoriuh for pointing out some of the SEO industry analysis posts that I cite below.


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How to Post a Recipe Lens on iPad

…Mostly so I can remember what the heck I did later.

So there’s this recipe I kept meaning to write up. I can’t lug the desktop computer down to the kitchen, and I’ve basically switched over to doing work on the iPad.

Turns out writing up the recipe was as fast as cooking it, so I could do both at the same time.

Needed apps: Pages (there’s also a desktop version of this which may have the same template). Something to transfer files over to one’s desktop computer (like Dropbox) or to the web (like FTP Client Pro).

  1. In Pages, I chose New and the Recipe template.
  2. I filled in and erased the text.
  3. I snapped an iPad camera photo and plugged it into the image placeholder by clicking on it and choosing Camera Roll.
  4. When done, I chose Share and Print. Then…
  • Open in Another App
  • Choose PDF
  • Choose App: FTP Client Pro
  • Upload
  • Rename to something without spaces in it.

At this point I had the PDF uploaded to my website’s server. That’s the “Printable Recipe” link on the lens.

Alternatively, at the “Choose Another App” stage I could’ve chosen Dropbox and uploaded the file to my Dropbox. It then would’ve been accessible in the cloud via any of my computers with Dropbox installed. From there I could’ve uploaded it to my web server like any other file. But FTP Client Pro saves a step.

I then wrote nearly all the lens on the iPad, copying the instructions from my Pages file to the Recipe module. (I used a Big Arrow Link to point to the PDF version uploaded to my server for the printable version because it looks better than Squidoo’s printable. Also, clickouts.)

Unfortunately, for the lens photo, there’s still no way to upload a graphic on iPad: you have to go to a traditional computer and upload the photo there. (I just sent a suggestion to SquidHQ to work on this.)

Everything else is incredibly easy to do on iPad.

Google Panda 20 Loves Squidoo, Hates Hubpages?

I’m having a little trouble separating out Squidoo’s Happy Traffic Season from impacts by the latest Google Panda update (rolled out on September 27 and the following 3 days), but I think this may be indicative of a Panda blessing on top of the usual seasonal traffic patterns:

Squidoo: “W00t, thanks for sending us more traffic for the holiday shopping season!”
Hubpages: “Why so mean, Google, WHY?”

(Note that it is normal for traffic to rise mid-week and tail off on Friday-Saturday-Sunday; it’s a web-wide pattern.)

Two possible reasons for Hubpages’ Sep. 28 traffic crash were discussed by Paul Edmondson, head of HP, in this announcement post: (1) they’d added a “buy on Amazon” button to the Amazon capsule to try and tweak its utterly ineffective conversions and (2) they just entirely revamped Hubpages’ profile page, adding a “Hubpages activity” section at the bottom that might be diluting the SEO value of the profile by linking to a lot of spammy social chitchat.   (1) is unlikely — I get plenty of Google traffic to pages like this with lots of nofollowed Amazon links — but (2) might be so.

Paul says HP has rolled back these two changes:

We believe it’s possible that one of these two changes started impacting traffic late last week, but aren’t sure which one, or if it’s the cause at all, but to be sure we are going to make some changes to test.

Translation: “We’re flailing, but we’ll test this and that until we find something that seems to help.” (Site outages on Friday and Sunday didn’t help either, but Squidoo has outages now and then and doesn’t show traffic dips). Hub traffic is starting to recover on my own account, but is still off by about 20%.

This was an interesting Panda update. Google was extremely cagey about it as SearchEngineLand’s write-up of Google Panda 20 explains.

On Friday, September 28, Matt Cutts announced a separate EMD Google algorithm update, which removes the advantage the Google algorithm used to give to low-quality websites using an exact match domain name that fit a popular search query. (www.teethwhitening.com took a rankings dive, for example).

Many people without exact-match domain names were noticing significant traffic changes over the weekend, during which time Matt Cutts resisted answering questions, but eventually SearchEngineLand called up Google and got a confirmation that yes, it was a Panda algorithm update.

An algorithm update.

During a regular Panda update, the Panda algorithm evaluates all websites (i.e. domains like Squidoo.com), and then uses the overall Panda rating of the website as one big factor in determining how high or low to list pages from that website in search results. This is like colleges getting evaluated annually, after which employers use the college’s rating as one big factor in deciding whether to hire particular job applicants from that college.

However, this was more than a regular Panda data refresh, in which it reevaluates all the colleges, er, websites. Instead, this was an algorithm refresh, which means Panda adjusted/tweaked the criteria it uses to evaluate websites. We don’t yet know what those criteria are— although at least some of them are listed in Google’s Inside Search blog post on Oct 4 (which unfortunately covers dozens of Google’s algorithm changes for the last two months, not just the Panda component).

At any rate, it appears that the new algorithm rewarded Squidoo and punched Hubpages. As usual, my chief reason for comparing these two websites’ Panda fortunes is that I keep hoping I’ll detect differences between the two websites — and how Panda treats them — that shed light on what Panda actually is looking for.

I still believe it was not a wise SEO move to noindex Pending Hubs. “Yo, Panda: from now on, Hubpages will not show search engines any fresh content until it’s stale, and we’re going to expect your searchbots to keep coming back to see when, randomly, we release new content from the noindex penalty box!” Maybe I’m crazy, but that just doesn’t seem like it would earn high marks from Panda. Again, stay tuned.

Why Traffic Stats Are Screwed Up: Google’s “Not Provided” Search Data

I’ve got the Google Traffic blues.

Smart online writers depend on the search queries in our traffic stats to show us what our readers are looking for, want to know, or might want to read more about. This helps us improve our existing content, by tailoring it to our readers’ needs. Search traffic records also help us look for leads about new topics to write on which might get traffic.

Over time, observing search traffic can give you instincts about what kinds of things people tend to search for on the web, and what they don’t. This is very useful knowledge for an online writer to have.

There’s just one problem.

Google is hiding more and more of this information. As a result, traffic stats on sites like Squidoo are starting to look weird:

“Direct” traffic? Just what does that mean, anyway?

Originally, “Direct” traffic indicated visitors navigating to our websites via a bookmark, clicking on a link in a private email, typing the URL in directly, or some other source that provided absolutely no information that our traffic software could track.

To this we may now add Google search queries on iOS6. Google doesn’t usually hide search data this completely, but in some cases, it’s encrypting/concealing search data so much that when a user performs a Google search and arrives on your site, Google won’t even let your traffic software know, “Hey, that visitor came from us.” It’s as if Google were walking behind the visitor with a broom, sweeping away their footprints.

So that’s why our traffic stats now show so much so-called “Direct” traffic. It’s search traffic arriving under Google’s invisibility cloak.

But all the rest of Google’s search traffic is filed under “Google,” right? And then the search queries should show up under the “Keywords” chart?

Sadly, no. In many cases, Google is only telling Squidoo, “Hi, I just sent you a visitor,” without passing along the actual terms/keywords they searched for. So many Google search traffic visits are now filed under the “Referrers” chart, instead of the “Keywords” chart:

If you check Google Analytics, the keywords for these searches are all listed as “Not Provided.”

Unfortunately, since Google is blocking the data from its end, there is absolutely no way to ferret out what words those visitors searched for to find your page.

Not all Google search queries are hidden. In some cases, they still show up under “Keywords.” But more and more of them are not showing up. This has been going on for a while, but it’s getting worse.

In 2011, Google started encrypting (hiding) search data for users logged into Google or Google Plus. At the time, Matt Cutts of Google claimed that this “not provided” data would be a very low percentage of our traffic stats data, “in the single digits.” That was an underestimate, of course.

More recently, Firefox has started voluntarily encrypting searches from users using Google search at the top of its browser. More and more web applications are following suit.

Since more and more third-party browsers and apps are voluntarily using Google encryption when their users do a Google search, the percentage of search terms “not provided” by Google keeps growing. Some websites are reporting as much as 50% of their search traffic is concealed by the “not provided” filter.

Google claimed that blocking search data was done to protect visitor privacy, but it’s a pile of crock. Google advertisers get access to search query data which is “not provided” to the rest of us. Basically, you have to pay Google now to get complete data on what your customers are looking for. If you’re doing it as a commercial advertiser, you get to snoop on people’s web searching habits; if you’re doing it as a writer trying to learn what your readers want, tough.

Luckily, we’re not entirely dependent on Google to help us learn what our visitors want. Bing, Yahoo, and other search engines are still reporting their search data to Squidoo, so we’ll still see plenty of examples of what kinds of searches are bringing visitors to our pages under the “Keywords” column. But we’re missing a complete picture. We may not be seeing the most popular searches bringing visitors to our pages, or, at the least, only a fraction of those searches are turning up in our “Keywords” column, with the rest hidden.

Oh, Hubpages (or: How to Make Google Shun You)

[Update Sept 29: the first problem mentioned in this post is now fixed. Unfortunately, the second one isn’t: it’s been over a week now since I published a new hub, and Google still hasn’t crawled it.]

Two months ago, Glen Stok, I, and others reported that the new Hubpages Profile redesign failed to work with Google Authorship. A few posts from HubStaff assured us that these kinks would be worked out.

Today, the changeover became mandatory. Sure enough, when I went in to correct my profile settings, the same bug showed up that we reported two months ago:

So let’s review this week’s Hubpages news, shall we?

  • Hubpages’ new “Pending Status” kludge means new hubs can’t be indexed by Google for days, perhaps weeks, resulting in lost traffic.
  • Hubpages’ new Profile pages mean that OLD hubs lose traffic, too, as soon as Google drops the author info and icon that was attracting traffic to many of our hubs.

Photobucket

I assume Hubpages will fix both these problems. I hope.

 

[And before anyone asks, no, I am not willing to upgrade to Google plus just because Hubpages doesn’t like my old Google profile URL.  That profile works with Google authorship. This blog, my Squidoo lenses, and my Hubpages hubs still cached by Google are proof.]