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Nov 2011

Does Twitter’s feed effect trump traditional media

Posted in Social Media | 0 Comments

It’s arguable that in recent years, the “buzz” has overtaken traditional channels of promotion. But what about news, and journalism? Is it faster to glean the headlines from your feeds, or from the front pages of whatever eclectic mish-mash of physical and digital content providers you’ve gone to, regular as clockwork, for years?

If you look at the hashtags for anything from Libya to The X-Factor, it’s clear as day that people are happy to inform each other and keep everyone up to speed, because what they’d tell five people around the water-cooler is now something they can tell hundreds of millions by tweeting – and both take less than a minute. In an astonishing turn around, journalism – a discipline that champions brevity and concise description above all else – has, in some aspects, been usurped by the popularity of a big old chat. Or has it?

The For

News has become stale. That’s not because it’s badly written, but because news, in its infancy, was about bringing people the facts as soon as possible. There’s an age-old saying in print journalism that your first paragraph should contain everything someone needs to know. Not only is this common sense, but it also means that if your article gets chopped down during the editing process, it doesn’t “break”.

In 2011, it’s possible to go one better, and present someone with an entire article’s worth of information in 140 characters, which trumps content several times the length. It’s said often during technological discussion, but we’re becoming an extremely impatient people, and seeing “Libya liberated, Gaddafi dead” flood my feed, rather than it hitting me once at six ‘o’ clock – rather than taking time out to read the news during the day – is what matters, to me.

If you’re a business, it also means that you’re able to reach into a space you couldn’t before – consumer’s personal information spheres. By doing so (tweeting at them, talking to them, and generally not being an old-fashioned “we only tweet promo content and never retweet or reply) you enable yourself to impress them directly, rather than through the love-hate filter of the press.

The Against

Twitter, Facebook – they’re far from perfect, and what’s worse is that they’re like blogs and their impact on online journalism – suddenly, everyone’s an journalist, and with Twitter, everyone’s an informant. As most people are a) prone to gossip, and b) not trained journalists, and will therefore proceed to repeatedly provide their followers with hearsay cast as fact, and hashtag relentlessly in order to flood key searches with irrelevant statements.

It can also be used alongside traditional journalism, or online – simply by delving into it and using it as a promotional tool, and if your business happens to deal in information, news, reviews and other media, there is no platform more prone to content going viral than social media. But to replace long-form content entirely would be a horrendous miss-step, especially given the long-established place in the media that journalism has, in comparison to the fly-by-night nature of social media – even Facebook’s losing members.


It’s certainly a tough topic, and I think a mix of the two is best – read your long-form stuff, but grab your water-cooler headlines from Twitter or other mediums, such as Reddit. But for those businesses who are wondering whether their product press releases are going to be required reading for anyone in the near future when we’re social to a fault online, I’d keep your cards close to your chest until we see where Twitter and the like end up in 2021. Time will tell.

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Feb 2011

Top 5 mistakes in SEO-optimised content made by small businesses.

Posted in Business tactics, Content creation | 0 Comments

It’s been a while since I’ve written a list here, probably close to a year, but I think it’s nice to summarise some tips in short-sharp form, whilst simultaneously granting yourself license to snap at those who keep making the same mistakes.

SEO-optimised content is what it says on the tin – web content that’s optimised for a search engine. However, many people assume that, rather than taking the SAS Commando route, they’d rather play at being James Bond and run in, guns blazing, painting everything a horrible shade of keyword with highlights of link. It’s horrendous, and you’re going to not only suffer the indignity of looking like a website designed by someone who’s usually hanging out in a padded cell rather than the local Starbucks, but you’re also going to put potential consumers off ever visiting your site again.

So, without further ado – here’s the top five biggest mistakes I see being made on small business websites.

1: Content saturated with keywords. Everyone loves a good article, and of course, over the course of an immersive bit of writing you’re going to cover a fair few topics to ensure you’re ranking highly enough in the ole’ SERPs. But when your content reads “John Doe loves SEO, social media, social networking, using social media websites, Facebook, Twitter, and tweeting,” instead of just “John Doe loves SEO and social media,” you’re going to look a little manic. Write naturally, but instead think about how to write concise sentences that use simple language that will turn up in Google searches more often rather than spamming your latest screed with every high-ranking word or phrase farted out by Google Analytics.

2: Links being overused. I run a couple of sites, and they both have pages with link-lists on them. I also have a few links in the sidebar of one, too. But what I don’t do is link to affiliate sites all over every single page. It’s fine to link to one or two sites within an article, or in your sidebar, but keep it to a minimum. Sites with more blue, underlined text than average-Joe-black is going to give people the worry that if you’re keen to show them every site but yours, yours can’t be that good at all.

3. Not hiding over-tagged posts. If you’re going to tag stuff to high heaven, rather than three or four times, you’re going to hide those, right? No? well, in that case, get ready for people to roll their eyes and not bother to comment. I tag like crazy when writing for certain sites, but those sites have tag clouds, rather than displaying the tags themselves. You don’t need to show people the fifty different international spellings of the niche product you’re selling – just categorise well and use a cloud – clouds will also eventually give both you and your readers a better idea of what your focus is.

4. Not quoting your sources. Seriously, I know it’s hard to sometimes link to a bigger, better site because they’ve got the skinny and you want to look like you have, but unless it’s widespread already, you must link to world exclusives. Not doing so implies one thing – that you’re a bad journalist. And, sadly, though you may not even realise it, blogging is simply a more modern form of journalism. The more you say “hey, this person said it first, but here’s what I think,” rather than “hey! I know something! No one told me, I just know! Isn’t that incredible?” is bad form and you’ll find yourself blacklisted in your own industry soon enough, whether you notice it or not. No point in people sending you press releases or news tips if you’re a plagiarist.

5. Failing to include any call to action. A call to action, in SEO terms, is simply a way of phrasing content titles or the final paragraphs of an article (or even using parts of your user interface design) to encourage people to get involved with your site’s content. Blog posts that use titles as a way of asking the site’s visitors a strong, opinion-dividing question cause debate, and even social drama. That’s fine – use it to your advantage. If you can provoke debate, then good! More traffic, more retweets, and more attention to the fact that you want people’s opinions as well, rather than endlessly spouting your own pseudo-neutral waffle.

So there you have it. Trust me, sites do tend to write that sort of stuff, and it drives me up the wall. If you’re trying not to be The Man, then don’t act like your only focus is traffic (I know it is, but the art of SEO is making it clear that that’s not really the case as far as the user’s concerned). Don’t let AdWords make you all stupid when it comes to putting fingers to keyboard (sorry, “pen to paper”), and focus on what makes your site the best possible experience for your visitors. Like Hemingway once said – “the first draft of anything is sh*t”. It’s never too late to edit old posts or revamp your content attitude. So go do so.

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Jul 2010

News automation: bad for business?

Posted in Blogging, Content creation | 0 Comments

Skimming along the waves of the world wide web a wee while back, I chanced across a rather disturbing idea, for anyone who’s ever watched Terminator: robot news. By this I don’t mean a live blog of R2-D2′s address to the American people – I’m talking about using StatsMonkey; an automated bit of software made by Intelligent Information Laboratory to create journalism from baseball statistics.

For me, this hits uncomfortably close to home. I’ve been working in journalism since I was seventeen, beavering away on subs at the Financial Times. It was hard graft there, and even more so when you were on the phone to Dow Jones, hoping they took you seriously with a high-pitched, quivering voice. But the experience was solid, and it helped me further my interest in bringing the news to the people.

However, if I was to suggest that financial journalism, the most statistic-laden, number-driven form of documenting current events, was to be automated, they’d have laughed me out of the office. “You can’t document the world of finance with a bit of code,” they’d claim. “You need real people, with real experience and talent.”

But how talented are we, really? I’ve seen robots play the piano, and though many claim it sounds lacklustre, without knowing better they’d think it was Mozart himself. There are many programs that can actually converse with you, they respond to what you’ve said with pre-programmed syntax strings and match your concepts to their comments.

So what makes these cocky programmers think they can master the craft of the written word with numbers and bits of fiddly code? Well, being a journalist, I went and had a dig around, as getting hold of these mad journo-scientists seems to be harder than curing the common cold (not that I’d know where to start, bar recommending ice cream, movies and a few days of rest).

The first piece I saw was Wired. Honestly? I thought they’d be massively against it. Surely using sports data to compile a story is no more difficult than doing the same with new technology? Cross-referencing previous scores/specifications, talking about other teams/brands, and comparing them to the  matches/devices of legend.

But I was wrong – they embraced the idea and openly stated it would be cheaper. There was more talk of software writing a Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, but let’s stay out of science fiction predictions for now. The realistic side to this development is this – journalists, and especially news journalists, are simply regurgitating facts in a certain format.

This is highlighted by National Public Radio’s interview with one Kristian Hammond, co-director of Intelligent Information Laboratory. When asked about documenting Little League games, he responded:

“We could literally write a game story for every single Little League game that is played in this country. That means every kid, every dad, every family, every grandma would see the story of what their kid is doing.”

The potential of this technology is huge. The ability to document every sports game, every bit of company progress – essentially, anything involving data, is mind-blowing. I’ve had instant-message chats with a computer, and it works to a point. But news? News is formulaic.

You can call me on it all you want, I’ve done my time in journalism – news with nothing but facts is news. News with opinion is a column. News with StatsMonkey, however, might be the reason none of us have a job in ten years. Medical degrees, anyone?

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Jun 2010

The Aggravations of Aggregate Sites

Posted in Blogging, Business tactics, Content creation, News, Online PR, Social Media | 5 Comments »

Have you ever submitted your well-written, thoroughly-researched article through to an aggregate site and watched it flounder as endless top-tens and ridiculous controversy soars to the top of people’s reading lists? I can identify with you if you’re one of the many suffering from what I’d like to call “aggregate aggravation syndrome.” It’s a tough disorder to crack, but with the right content and the right attitude to summarising and pitching your content to a global, news-hungry audience, this can all change easily enough.

Realistically, it’s just a case of making sure your article looks more interesting than all the others, and I’m sure we’d all love to think it was as simple as that. Unfortunately, it’s not. Your article remains a needle in a haystack, and it’s your job to make sure it reaches the eyes and ears of every single industry-related party and all the genre-disinterested browsers it can. It’s a tough gig but there are possibilities you may have overlooked, and of course, contraversial strategies you may be using that are, much to your shock, having the opposite effect.

Bigger than Elvis

So, say you’ve written a long, sprawling article on SEO, and it encompasses research, interviews, and a level of writing rarely seen since The Guardian was released that morning. You’re happy with the work, MS Word is letting it go without so much as a single squiggly red or green line, and you’re so into your own work that sharing it with the world seems like the only viable option. So where to go from here? Why, to an aggregate site, of course!

Let me explain this logic with a sobering fact. If you’re blogging, right now, on a account, there are over 300’000 new posts today alone. That’s somewhere in the region of thirty new books full of articles, and you know at least one of them is likely to be similar to yours over the course of the week. Three hundred thousand. Let that sink in for a moment. What chance does yours have, even with tags and that awesome graph you made in Excel? Not many. In fact, one of my highest-traffic articles of all time on my personal blog was a random rant about a LEGO version of a Harry Potter videogame. A year or more later, and it’s ranked thousands of hits, and it was never submitted.

The point I’m making is that the internet is a seriously fickle thing. Take a look at the front page of Digg and tell me what you see. Today, for example, there are a range of articles, but most of them focus on three key elements of global-appeal news: danger, drama and pictures. If we drift into the technology section, as this is where you’re far more likely to turn up (or browse – all news bar the exclusive is, to some degree, regurgitation), then we begin to see a different pattern: humour, heated debate, and leaked intel on new tech. The reason the pattens change is because as news and articles become more specialist, more niche, readers are absorbing writing whose mindset, tone and texture more closely reflect their target audience.

I’d just like to say a few words

Every time you write a new article, think of how you’d pitch it as a freelance piece. I’m serious. I know no one wants to voluntarily pitch freelance pieces ever again if they can avoid it, as it’s something of a humiliating, degrading, grinding process that kills the soul and maims the ego. But it’s also a brilliant acid test – if you could pitch your article to me in ten words, using as much or as little jargon as possible, I can tell you whether or not it’ll work. Let’s take a look at a few high-ranking examples of more opinion-based pieces.

Now, to start with, I found an article that I think is relevant to anyone who works on websites that use Adobe’s wonder-project, Flash. The title is “Is Flash Dead? The Future of Adobe’s Plug-In.” Now, this is a fairly controversial thing to say, but what’s clever is the question mark placed after the opening statement itself. This is key – if you’re debating something about social media, and you had the choice between “Twitter is Pointless” and “Is Twitter Pointless?”, choose the second option. The reason for this is you’re posing as a neutral party, even if this isn’t the case. The decision as to whether or not to invest ten minutes reading an article of considerable depth and debate, and then responding in the comments thread, is often one made in the opening few moments of reading an article’s title and subtitle. By phrasing the controversial statement as a question, it invites debate without inviting wrath or apathy and zero click-throughs from offended parties who see you as a prejudiced commentator.

The second example I’d like to give as a great example of effective aggregate-site-management is “Fortune 100 Companies Leveraging Social Media (Infographic)“. Now, this may seem a tad deep and a little too serious, but this is currently the top Digg article on a search for “social media”. Social media’s a relaxed sport, at best, and not something you can cover without being a little relaxed. This is also a graph site, which suits that industry perfectly – anyone using FaceBook and Twitter is going to want new-age ways of communicating information, and nothing does this better than indicating to them that all they’re in for is a slick diagram rather than 1000 words of prosaic musing on the subject.

It also has stick figures.

Seriously, though, it’s a great way of dragging people in. Entertain them. Tempt them. Make them curious or make them mad, and let them click through to shower you with praise or hatred. One of the most irritating sites in the universe, in my games journalism days, was also one of the most successful, because it kept encouraging heated, angry debate between Sony loyalists and Microsoft fan-soldiers. With social media, why not talk about the advantages of Twitter over Facebook, or why Bebo’s a lost, pointless art? Tempt them in with your tag-line the same way you would if you were designing a film poster, and watch your Diggs soar.

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