MBA: check.

Ryan graduated from the University of Texas

Hook ’em Horns.

A long, complicated story preceded this picture. I hope to start telling it soon.  For now, it’s enough to say that a goal more than three years in the making has been accomplished.  (In the meantime, read this.)

Contact Form 7 not working? Consider Jetpack

I’ve been doing some consulting recently for a local start-up that has used school computers for sale.  When I put their website together, I did what I’ve done for numerous other clients: I used Contact Form 7 to put some email forms on the site.  I put a shortcode in a sidebar widget for an email form.  But for some reason, although the main contact form worked with no problem, emails submitted through the sidebar form failed, every time.

After some research and discussion with the hosting provider, I reached the conclusion that there was some issue with the sidebar that was breaking the shortcode’s functionality.  Bottom line: I would need to either insert the code manually into the template (I try to avoid that), buy a premium plugin (not really an option in this case) or use some other hack such as Foxy Form.

However, I discovered a simple workaround via Jetpack, the free service from Automattic that connects self-hosted WordPress sites with  Very handy way of getting an email form into a site without running around looking for a new plugin.

RSS Live Links RIP

So I was looking at the row of extension buttons in Google Chrome, specifically hunting for the RSS Live Links icon so I could catch up on search news.  When I realized…it was gone.  I looked in my list of installed extensions to see if it had gotten switched to inactive for some reason.  Nowhere to be found.

Where on earth did it go?  I hunted around a bit, and found this.

As the original author of RSS Live Links, I sold the extension in January to what I thought would be a safe home. Unfortunately, that home then sold it on. I have contacted the new owners and have received a very curt reply that Google pulled the extension (I have not been told why) and that they are working to reinstate it.

I apologise to all for this – my intention when selling it was to ensure its continued survival in the face of my lack of time to maintain it.

Well, isn’t that unfortunate.  Fortunately I found a good replacement: RSS Feed Reader.  If you’re a Chrome user looking for a good RSS extension, seriously check it out.  It’s everything RSS Live Links was and then some.

Now, if you’ll excuse me…I need to go hunt down a bunch of RSS feeds.  :(

First thoughts on the Boston attack

As noted in passing in my bio, I worked briefly in broadcast news.  Back in 2005, I was working in local TV news helping produce a local morning newscast, assigned specifically to cover national/international news. By far the most stressful period of my time there was the London terrorist attacks.  One of the things that made it so difficult was the wide range of assertions coming out of London.  Nobody – BBC, Sky News, CNN, WaPo, nobody – was in agreement on even the basic facts: the number of trains, the number of buses, how many were injured, how many were dead, etc.

So take it from somebody who has been there: for at least the next 24 hours, take everything you read on the Boston bombings with a grain of salt.  Right now, nobody is really getting it right.  That’s not an indictment of the news organizations involved, either – that’s just the nature of this sort of thing.

And, of course, my thoughts and prayers are with the people affected by this horrible event.

Les Misérables, the movie musical: a review

So, Les Misérables.  But first a disclaimer.  As some of you already know, I have a bit of background in vocal performance.  Les Miz is my favorite musical, and I’ve seen it live twice.  So that’s the perspective from which I write.  (Side note: I started writing this waaaaay back in December, when we saw the movie, and I’m just now getting around to posting it.)  Now that you’ve been fairly warned… [Read more…]

Bing just got a little more interesting (or not? warning: rant to follow)

I just got an email from Bing Webmaster Center inviting me to “be one of the first to see and experience the new Bing at”

Bing with new Facebook features

As with the prior version, it’s possible to see Facebook Likes from friends if you’re logged in.  But the real action happens in the right-hand sidebar, which offers a high level of integration with Facebook.

Facebook integration with Bing

Post directly to Facebook from Bing, add links from search into a Facebook post, and – if I recall correctly – see prior tweets from a given link.

But here’s what’s maddening.  The nifty new sidebar on the beta side comes and goes.  Even when I’m logged into Facebook and searching for stuff I know for a fact my friends will have liked, the bar is gone.

Listen up, Bing.  I want very much to like you.  I really want you to pose a serious threat to Google.  I mean, you’re Microsoft, for crying out loud – back in the 90’s and 2000’s, weren’t you kind of accustomed to terrifying your competitors?  But give me a chance to really test and see your functionality.  Your best shot at presenting an alternative to Google is through your partnership with Facebook.  Just trying to outrun Google on their terms isn’t going to do it.  After going (almost) entirely with Bing for a week, Farhad Manjoo said as much:

All that being said, I don’t think you should switch. For one thing, despite Bing’s better design, Google is unquestionably the better search engine. Of the hundreds of searches I conducted in the last week, there were a handful of times that Bing just didn’t seem to be giving me the answer I was looking for. When I turned to Google with the same query, I got better results. This happened once when I was researching the name of a real estate agent; Google turned up some alarming stuff that Bing didn’t catch. Another time, I was looking for a computer scientist who’s an expert on wearable computing. I found a page and contact info for him on Bing, but I got a bounceback when I e-mailed him. When I Googled him, I found an indication that he’d moved on to a new job, with newer contact info—a page that Bing hadn’t turned up in its top results.

Google was better in other tiny ways as well. Sometimes I’d search for a place—the Peets coffee shop near my house, a specific street address—and Bing would fail to show me a link to Bing Maps at the top of its results page. Google always directed me to a Maps page, saving me a step. Bing also doesn’t offer “instant” search, the Google feature that updates results as you type. And most damning of all, I didn’t happen upon any area where Bing is clearly superior to Google. Over lots and lots of searches, Bing mostly worked really well, and one or two times, it didn’t.

The most striking thing about switching to Bing was how enmeshed I remained in the Google universe. During my week with Bing, I found myself reaching for lots of Google products beyond its Web search engine—Gmail, YouTube, Google Calendar, Google Books, Google Scholar, Chrome, Picasa, and probably a few others I’m forgetting. My editor challenged me to go without using any Google products at all. Could I survive even a day without anything made in Mountain View? I tried. I redirected my mail to Hotmail, I tried to abstain from YouTube, and I attempted to research obscure topics without using Scholar. But I couldn’t do it. Google’s just too good—even beyond search, its products are too useful, too central to the Web to get much accomplished without them. I lasted less than half a day without Google, and it was hell.

And that’s the biggest case against switching to Bing. If you’re never really going to escape Google—and if Bing is pretty much exactly like Google—what’s the point? Yes, Google and Bing are functionally identical. But Bing will need a lot more than parity with the most-popular search engine in the land if it wants people to switch en masse.

As I say, your partnership with Facebook – especially, using social signals to balance out the link graph – is where you can compete.  Based on what I heard from Duane Forrester and others at SMX Advanced last year, and based on what I see out of this latest Facebook integration attempt I think you understand as much.  But allow me to really see your new functionality in the wild.  If it’s not ready for a public test, then for crying out loud, don’t send me an email asking me to check it out.


Brand and SEO – is it really one versus the other?

Ran into an interesting article (h/t Hal Werner) about balancing brand building and search engine optimization.  It’s definitely worth a read.

I would add that even if your first consideration is SEO, you still want to rank for your brand, for the simple reason that it can be a good barometer for the overall health of your site.  Put another way: if you aren’t ranking for your own brand or company name, you have a problem, and possibly a big one.

In addition, for many sites I’ve worked on in the past, even for those that used organic and paid search as their main marketing channels, the highest traffic and conversions were around branded search.  So it’s a bit foolhardy to focus on nonbranded search to the exclusion of your branded terms.

However, it’s worth remembering that if you’re talking about building brand, then you’re almost certainly talking about offline advertising at some point.  In other words, money money money.  But your web presence should serve to reinforce whatever you’re doing offline, which leads into my first point above.  So it’s not one or the other, as the author says:

No matter what industry you’re in or the type of business you’re trying to build, consider including both brand building and SEO in your marketing strategy. You don’t have to focus exclusively on one technique at the expense of the other.

Steve Jobs: reflections

Sometime in 1997, while visiting a printing office of some variety, I experienced a bit of shock at seeing a Mac of some sort on a desk.  A Mac!  Why, Apple is still in business?  Mostly I was surprised to see one in the flesh, especially in a business setting.  I mean, I could see a graphic designer owning one, and a jazz musician I knew used a Mac laptop for his drum machine, but otherwise I thought of Macs as a curiosity rather than an actual computer.

One year later, Apple launched the iMac.

This past Saturday, while waiting to get a haircut, I looked around the waiting area at the other customers.  I counted no fewer than four iPhones, including my own.  A nine-year-old boy sitting on the floor played a game on an iPad.  I had left my MacBook Pro in my car.

I marveled a bit at what Steve Jobs had wrought, and how far Apple had come.  Not only that, but how dramatically Steve Jobs had changed nearly every bit of personal computing technology the world knows.  What colors were computers in the 1980s and 1990s?  Beige, beige and light beige.  Then came the iMac.

Suddenly, you could get your computer in red, blue, green, or even in polka dots!  Yes, other manufacturers had produced computers in multiple colors in the past.  Apple made it mainstream.  Admit it: even now, more than a decade later, you still want to play with this thing.  And I use the word “play” deliberately.  Because if Apple products are nothing if they don’t stand for fun.

Then Jobs decided to push ahead again, which brought us the iMac G4.  You remember, the one with the floating screen, looked like a lamp?

This was more than a dramatic reinvention of the personal computer.  Through the G4, Jobs became the arbiter of standards of the computer industry.  When he unveiled the G4, he openly proclaimed the CRT monitor dead.  Did he succeed?  Think very carefully: when was the last time you saw one of these monsters in regular use?  Is it even possible to buy one brand new?  And since when have you used a floppy disk for anything?  Starting with the G4, this tiny company with relatively small market share in essence told the world, “This is how personal computing works.”  In the process, the company not only dominated some areas (first MP3 players, then smartphones) and created others (the iPad), it upended entire industries, and arguably saved others.  Granted, the recording industry as we knew it is essentially destroyed at this point, but iTunes seems to have made it economically viable to continue to sell recordings of music.

Understand, I don’t think I’m some sort of blind Apple fanboy.  I have more than a few qualms with my MacBook Pro, and I would love to be able to customize my phone (not to mention view the occasional Flash video) as I do with my browsers.  And let’s face it, Jobs was by all accounts an unbelievably difficult boss.  But as much as I have considered switching to Android, there’s a reason I went ahead and upgraded to an iPhone 4S today: my 3GS has been a fantastic phone, and I have no reason at all to believe the 4S won’t be vastly better.

To me, the amazing thing about Apple under Steve Jobs isn’t merely how ubiquitous Apple products became, nor their quality.  The thing that amazed me is how they fit so flawlessly into our daily lives while at the same time fundamentally changing them.  Consider:

  • When was the last time you had to check an actual physical map to get someplace you had never been before?
  • How many more spontaneous, unplanned, high-quality pictures and videos do you have of events from your daily life?
  • How is it that you can on a whim send a detailed status update to mere acquaintances, good friends and our closest relatives en masse?
  • How is it that we can show a video to an individual, a group of people or even a class of students, just because?
By the time of Henry Ford’s passing, America was fundamentally and permanently changed.  The same is true of Steve Jobs.  We can only imagine what might have come next had he not been taken so young.

All things he seeth fit to inflict upon them: an LDS view on adversity

Today I had the opportunity to teach a priesthood lesson on adversity.  It was interesting to see the lesson take an unusual turn.

LDS theology says adversity comes to an individual’s life for any of a number of reasons:

  • Our exercise of agency (our freedom to choose): we exercised poor judgment or just flat-out sinned, and so we reap what we sowed.
    • UPDATE: Failed to mention one pertinent comment from yesterday: sometimes adversity comes from righteous exercise of agency, such as those who face persecution due to their obedience, or who choose a good but difficult path (i.e. one who elects to work towards a university degree, therefore implicitly signing up for the temporal difficulties of college).
  • Another’s exercise of agency: they exercised poor judgment or just flat-out sinned, so we suffer the consequences of another’s choices.
  • We live in a fallen world: it rains and everybody gets wet (except in Texas right now), so some of us end up with some awful ailment or condition of some kind.

There are probably other fine distinctions that I’ve missed, but that pretty much covers it.  I think this is pretty much in agreement with the wider Christian community.  But there’s an additional reason that is found in LDS scripture.  I hadn’t planned on really hitting it too hard, but it as it arose as a topic of discussion in class, I went with it.  And that additional reason is this: sometimes, the Lord intentionally imposes adversity upon His children to help them to grow. Consider Mosiah 3:19:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. (emphasis added)

Some raised the notion that the Lord sometimes allows us to endure the consequences of our poor behavior so that we learn good from evil.  True enough, but that’s not what’s being suggested here.  It’s one thing for a parent to allow a child to hurt due to poor judgment; it’s another thing entirely to suggest that the Lord would deliberately place adversity in that child’s life – to “inflict upon him” discomfort, suffering, even pain.

But I was reminded of some amazing YouTube videos I found recently.

Since the lesson had migrated to this discussion of the Lord intentionally giving us adversity, I showed this to the class on the iPad (gotta say: that thing has got to be a game changer for classroom instruction).  I made a point of skipping to 2:05 to show the lady tossing the baby in the water.  Does little Rene look or sound to you like he’s having a good time?  But lest you think of this as child abuse, consider that, given enough time and training, the kids can do this:

I found these links, with others, on this Metafilter post. Read the comments for some comedy gold.  As I pointed out to the class, these videos suggest that parents of toddlers have the following options when it comes to their children’s safety around swimming pools:

  1. Hover over their children nonstop to make sure they aren’t at risk of drowning
  2. Tether them to a cinderblock to make sure they get nowhere near the pool (yes, I shamelessly stole this from a Metafilter comment)
  3. Teach them to swim to give them the skills to be safe

If you choose door #3, you’re almost certainly electing something that can be unpleasant and downright frightening for your child, and for you.  But it could result in something that will be a blessing to that child’s life.  LDS theology suggests that God can operate much the same way in our spiritual lives.  As it happens, C.S. Lewis agreed.  From Mere Christianity:

The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were ‘gods’ and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him – for we can prevent Him, if we choose – He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said. (boldface added)

The world abounds with examples that progress only comes through discomfort and trial.  The best grapes come from vines that are a little bit stressed out.  Every non-juiced bodybuilder will tell you that great strength is achieved only through tremendous effort and pain.  The strongest steel is produced only from intense heat.  And the most righteous, Godlike people around are those purified and strengthened by the fire of adversity.  And because He is looking to produce the very best, sometimes God sparks that fire deliberately.  I hadn’t planned to go there during the lesson because, well, it’s just a very uncomfortable teaching, but it’s true nonetheless.

One final thought.  I read a quote on Times and Seasons a while back that I can’t find, but has always stuck with me: “Study of adversity tends to weaken faith.  Experience of adversity tends to strengthen it.”  Maybe they posted it with attribution to somebody.  Whatever – it’s just very, very true.

Link building: outsource it or do it yourself?

A contributor at Sphinn poses this question about link building:

We all know links are a key element of SEO. But it’s also difficult and monotonous work. The tradition of analyzing competitors’ links, creating a list of link opportunities, contacting site owners about getting a link — that’s time consuming and often unsuccessful. In our new “Discussion of the Week,” what’s a webmaster or business owner to do about getting links? Is Do-It-Yourself link building the best way to spend time and resources, or are there other ways to build inbound links? (One obvious answer is to hire a link building company/consultant, but that’s not D-I-Y, now is it?) :-)

Let me first restate my credentials.  I’ve worked as an SEO for an excellent Houston-based web marketing agency, and I very recently moved to doing SEO in-house for a Houston, Texas electricity company.  In fact, I’ve recently put the finishing touches on a comprehensive SEO strategy for my new employer (I’ll circle back to this in a minute).  So I’ve seen this from both sides of the table.  And link building has very much been on my mind recently.

Having established my background, let me turn my attention to the Sphinn discussion.  To begin with, I really think the premise is a bit flawed in the definition of DIY.  It sounds like the author is saying that if the business owner hires anybody to do any work for them, even if it’s an internal employee, it ceases to be a DIY endeavor.  Sounds awfully restrictive to me.  Business owners are in the business of doing whatever it is they do, be it provide services or manufacture widgets.  Unless the owner is a control freak or just an SEO savant, he or she is almost certainly going to seek some sort of outside help for their web marketing, be it via a consultant, agency or full-time employee.

Trust me, I agree that link building is labor-intensive; it’s one of several reasons that SEO doesn’t scale very well.  Little wonder that so many link building specialists have popped up in the industry.  However, shady link building agencies can absolutely wreak havoc on your SEO campaign.

I think the question is better restricted to whether it’s better to have link building done by in-house employees or to outsource it.  One reason this piqued my interest is because of my aforementioned role as an in-house SEO specialist, particularly my aforementioned strategy development work for my new employer.  While discussing the finer details of my overall strategy with my superiors, one asked a rather surprising question:

“What are your thoughts about hiring an outside firm to handle link building – things like directory submissions, and the like?”

This was surprising to me for a collection of reasons:

  1. The inherent risk involved.  Just ask this guy – or, of course, J.C. Penney.
  2. They hired me to handle SEO – seems to me link building is in my job description, no?
  3. One of the reasons I wanted to start doing SEO in-house was because of the increasing importance of effective PR with link building.  As I said elsewhere, “In my professional work in search engine optimization, the thing that has really come to the forefront is how effective SEO – namely, backlink building – and effective PR are heavily connected.  The line between the two has gotten so blurred that I really believe it’s increasingly hard to see where one ends and the other begins.”  The more I worked at backlink building in an agency setting, the more convinced I became that there was a huge advantage to working in-house and being able to align my link building work with a company’s PR efforts.
  4. Dovetailing off #2 and #3: in addition to me, we have a full-time social media specialist on staff who is going full throttle on Facebook and Twitter.  That work is already helping with our off-site SEO.  Do we really need an outside company or consultant for link building?

Here was my answer to my company superiors.  “I’m open to the idea.  But I will be extremely selective about anybody we have doing this.  I want to know exactly what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, and I want to know precisely the links we’re getting.  It’s way too important to let somebody do this without very clear oversight.”

For me, here’s where I come down on outsourcing link building:

  1. Be prepared to pay good money for it.  Effective off-site SEO is one place where you don’t dare cut corners.
  2. Do your best to bring somebody on board to do it internally.
  3. If you have to bring in a third-party consultant or agency, try to find somebody who will make link building a major component of a comprehensive public relations strategy for your company.  As I say, good link building and effective PR are pretty much interchangeable.
  4. Closely connected to #3: make sure social media is in the mix as well.

In short, I think it’s highly shortsighted to look at link building in the absence of considering social media development and public relations efforts.