Google: Curating vs Controlling – Do We Need a Better Search Engine?

Let me start out by stating a couple of details that are going to come to light in this post. First, I am about to show my age. I have been in and around the industry of Web Design and Search Engine Optimization for many years. I started dabbling with these things in the last century. You know, back in the world of CompuServe and dial-up modems. Yeah, that long ago!

The second detail you will pick up from this post is that I have made a living by helping people navigate the difficulties of getting their business or organization set up on the Internet. I don’t say that to brag or, depending on your point of view, villainize myself. It is just a fact. Take it however you wish.

Search Engines of Yore

Many years ago when the Internet was young, few people knew much about it, and many of those who did, felt it was a passing fad or at best a place to find information or talk to people from around the world. I still remember my fascination with talking to someone from another country in an online group. It was amazing how cool that was. Our technology has come a long way since then and these types of interactions have become mundane to most of us. Today, we hear news from around the world mere moments after things have happened.

In the old days (I can’t believe I just wrote that), search engines were just a simple way to find information or sites that might interest you. That still holds true today. However, as things grew in the online world, more and more businesses were adding websites as a way of marketing and communicating with potential customers. Search engines needed a way to let people find the information or sites they were looking for amidst a sea of possibilities, and display that information in a relevant manner. This generally involved their “web crawler” searching through web pages and look for keywords within the content on a page. If your search terms matched the content on the page, you would see that page in your search engine results page (SERP). Simple, right? Not for long.

The Need for Better Results

Everything was fine when the whole thing started out. The trouble came when more and more sites were being created. As more sites popped up, it became increasingly difficult to find the site or information for which you were searching. Simply put, there was just too much information and a serious need to sort it out in a manner that showed you the information you were looking for and not cluttered in with information that was not related to your needs. All we really want is to find the information or site(s) we want without all of the stuff we don’t. Right?

The Google Takeover

In the beginning there were several search engines vying for the right to be your search site of choice. If you have been around the Internet for a while, you may remember names like Infoseek, Lycos and AltaVista.  There were several more search engines and there are still many more today. All of these early search engines were in a power struggle to win the “top” spot.

Google began as a research project in the mid 1990s and grew to become the number one search engine in most of the world today. The only place that Google is not the leader is in China where Baidu is king. Google achieved such universal recognition that its name has become a verb, ie. “I Googled her to see when she was born.”

Google’s algorithm, or the code that determines a site’s placement in the SERP, has been growing and adapting for a couple of decades now. As website experts have tried to find ways to get their sites to rank the highest, Google has responded by changing their code to make sure that only the most legitimate information finds its way into your search results. There are lots of ways they have gone about lowering or removing sites that try to “cheat” the system and we will not go into that here, but Google works diligently to provide the best, most relevant, results possible. This is where things get a little shaky.

Somewhere along the line, I feel like Google may have gone a bit too far in an effort to keep site owners honest. While striving to find signals that a site was best for certain search results, Google has offered “suggestions” on how to set up a website to rank well.

Have We Gone Off The Rails?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO for short) is a set of techniques and elements that offer search engines an indication of what your site is about. Many companies have offered SEO services to their clients and Light House Studio is one of these companies.

We have been providing SEO services for almost two decades, so I have had lots of experience in this field and have followed the current trends closely. One of the most troublesome trends I have seen is in the suggested methods offered by Google. One of the popular phrases you will hear in this field is “Content is King.” In fact, I have said it myself.

The idea of good content is not a bad one. Everyone likes good content that is well written and presented. The trouble comes when this mindset slips into the pattern of churning out more content just to rank better. If you are approaching content as a means for better ranking, then you will often tend toward quantity over quality.

Content quantity is not the only area where Google is making these suggestions. They also have started heavily pushing for faster loading sites, sites that are mobile friendly and other such enhancements that should increase the user experience. All good ideas, but at what cost?

My Problem

My problem (and I understand that this is MY problem) with where we are right now is that I have an ever increasing feeling that Google has started dictating what our sites should look like and what they should contain. I am all for sites that are well designed and have great content, but I don’t feel that it is Google’s place to tell me what I should have on my site. I am afraid we might be starting to cross the line between curating content and controlling content. This makes me nervous.

I truly understand Google’s efforts to make sites better for users. A happy user is better for a company than a frustrated user who has to wait for pages to load or who cannot view a site because it does not display well on a mobile device. We all want sites that load quickly, display well and have great content, but where do we draw the line?

What Do You Think?

As someone who follows the search industry closely, I have a different perspective on these matters than most. So, what are your thoughts, dear reader? Do you feel the search community is overstepping their bounds or do you think this is a small price to pay for better websites? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Upcoming Google Algorithm Could Have a Major Impact on Your Site’s Ranking

 

If you are a long-time subscriber to our newsletter, then you have probably heard me talk about the need for websites to be “mobile-friendly”. Basically what this means is that you need a website that will display well on the smaller screens of tablets and smartphones, as well as on desktop and laptop computers. Another term that is used in this discussion is the word “responsive”. These terms are similar, but slightly different.

While there is more than one way to have a mobile-friendly site, the point of the matter is that Google wants sites to work well on smaller devices and they have for quite some time now. You may be thinking, “Okay, so what”, and I wouldn’t blame you. However, it appears that the time for being complacent about the mobile-friendliness of your site is coming to an end.

The New Algorithm

Google will soon be rolling out a new change to their algorithm they use to determine site ranking, in their listings. This update will start on April 21, 2015 and is supposed to have a big impact on site listings. It is purported to be a more drastic change than their Panda and Penguin updates. If that is true, it could be a big problem for lots of site owners, since Panda and Penguin caused lots of issues for many sites.

What Should You Do?

The biggest thing site owners need to do is make sure their sites are mobile-friendly. There are a couple of ways you can check to see if your site qualifies.

First, you can do a search on Google through your smartphone or tablet. When you find your site’s listing, if Google considers it mobile-friendly, it will say so in the listing. You will see “Mobile-friendly” just under the link to your site and just before your site’s description.

The second thing you can try is using Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test page. Just visit https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/mobile-friendly/ and type in your site’s web address. The test page will analyze the site and determine whether it is mobile-friendly or not.

My Site Is Not Mobile-Friendly! Should I be Worried?

This update could cause some serious problems. The Panda and Penguin updates caused some very high ranking sites to drop so far down in the listings as to be virtually non-existent. If this update is as bad, or worse, there is no telling what could happen. On the other side of that coin, it may not make much difference at all, for many sites. It really is hard to tell until it happens. I sometimes wonder if Google really even knows.

What I see as fairly obvious, however, is that Google is getting serious about making site owners bring their sites up to speed in the mobile world. It is reported that over 60% of searches are done on mobile devices these days. If you find that figure hard to believe, just take a moment and think of all of the people you see on a daily basis, with their eyes glued to a smartphone screen. We are becoming more mobile in our data and so are our browsing habits.

My advice is, if your site is not mobile-friendly, you should try to get it up to date as soon as you can. Even if Google doesn’t penalize your site (which they might), they certainly are not going to give you any points for a non-mobile site. In a world where how well your site ranks can make the difference of getting the sale, lead or contact, can you really afford to lose any ground?

Password Stupidity and How to Stop It

In our last blog post, we discussed why you need good secure passwords for your online life. In this post we are going to give you some helpful ideas on how to maintain a secure set of strong passwords.

Password Don’ts

I deal with a lot of websites and a lot of clients. These websites sometimes get compromised and these clients are often to blame. Let me explain.

Many websites, these days, are built upon some sort of Content Management script. There is WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, Light CMS, and so forth. While these scripts make working with websites easier in some respects, they also make life a little trickier. Most of my clients want a CMS like WordPress, so that they can log in and make small changes to the website, such as adding a new blog post. A good CMS is great for this purpose. However, that login information is a vulnerability when it comes to site security.

When I set up a new user on one of these sites, I use a random password generator to create a strong password for them. Once I give them this password, however, most of the clients will go change it to something they can remember. That is where the problem starts. A simple short password can be cracked by software in absolutely no time. A 4 character, all lower case password can be cracked in less than 1 second. Let me say that again, “Less than 1 second”. “My password is longer than that”, you say. Okay, a 6 character complex password can be cracked in approximately 1 hour. For more information on these stats you can read this article.

This would not be too much of a problem if people used passwords that were a minimum of 8 characters and that used upper and lower case letters and numbers in a random order. The random part is important. Many password crackers use a list of common words and the dictionary as a basis for starting to find your password. Even a long, common word will be cracked pretty quickly. Plus, many people use very common words and phrases or sequences as a password. I use a security log on most of the sites I build and it will tell me when someone has failed to sign in and what password they tried to use. This gives me a list of passwords NOT to use. Here are a few: password, 111, 1234, 1q2w3e4r5t (seems random until you look at your keyboard), admin, qwerty123, admin1234, pswd, abcd, admin1 and so on.

So What Do I Do?

If you want to stay secure online here are some ways you can do that.

  1. Generate a good, strong password. There are several password managers out there that can not only help you generate a random password, but remember it for you as well. Take a look at LastPass. It is very effective and even has a free version. You can also do a search for others, but LastPass is the only one I can recommend from personal experience. Make sure the password is 10 characters or more for best security.
  2. Don’t use the same password over and over. If you use the same password in more than one place, you run the risk of having one compromise becoming a complete takeover of your online life.
  3. Don’t use common words or dictionary words. We have already discussed why this is bad.
  4. Don’t keep a stored list. If you keep a written or typed list of your passwords, you run the risk of someone copying that list and having access to your online world. Many security breaches come from physical surveillance and information gathering. Some hackers get sensitive data from the dumpster of the company they hack into.
  5. Use common sense. This seems like an obvious one, but most people don’t really think about their online security very much. A little paranoia and common sense can go a long way.

So now you have some ideas of what to do and what not to do when it comes to password security. Take a minute and try out some of the ideas listed here and then, pass it along to someone else you know and love. You may save them some trouble down the road, as well.

Your Password Stinks, Try Again

Yes, we have all heard that we need to use a good, secure password, but few people really give much thought to their passwords. Are you one of them? As someone who spends a lot of time trying to make the websites that we build more secure, I am here to tell you, that you probably are.

You see, what I have come to realize is that most people aren’t really sure what a good, secure password is and they are not sure why it matters. Most of us know that our password to our online banking accounts needs to be really strong. We don’t want someone accessing our account and stealing our hard earned cash. The banks, themselves, require us to input the proper number and type of characters to help us stay secure. They even make you enter special answers to security questions, just to add another level of security. And, I will bet you found it frustrating the last time you were asked to enter a new answer to yet another question. I know, I have been there, too.

Is all of this really necessary? Yes! Is it really foolproof? No!!

We have all heard the reports of some of the largest companies out there being hacked into and having customer credentials stolen. You probably even had to go reset your password, as a result. When it comes right down to it, passwords are not secure. There are always ways around them or ways to figure them out. However, until we move to a new security standard (these are in the works), we will have to rely on our old friend the password.

I like to think of using passwords sort of like a car and car keys. If you leave your car unlocked and the keys in the ignition, it is going to be a lot easier for someone to steal your car than it would be if you locked the doors and took the keys with you. Can someone still pick the lock and hot-wire the car? Sure they can, but it takes someone with a lot more skill to do that, so your security increased greatly just by locking the doors and taking the keys. Now, when some unsavory character comes walking through the parking lot, checking for unlocked cars, he will move on to another vehicle and not bother with yours.

Your password is your key. The website you log into is the car and the security protocols set up on that site are the locks. If you use a poor password, it is sort of like locking the car and leaving the key hanging in the car door. The same thing can be said for writing your password on a sticky note and sticking it to your computer monitor. So, the best way to secure your online life, is to use a better key (password), and keep that key safe, as well. Think about a strong password as being like one of those new car keys with the computer chip in them. It is still a key, but it has a much stronger security than an old skeleton key.

Our next post will discuss what makes a good and bad password and how you can easily use good passwords without having to remember them all. I encourage you to read it. It may keep your car from getting stolen!

Want to Stand Out Online? Try Custom Photos

These days, finding ways to make your web site stand out from the competition can be difficult. It has become very easy to get a web site and almost everyone has one. However, as we have discussed in the past, it is not so easy to design, create, optimize, and promote a website that will bring you visitors and even more importantly, customers.

So what can you do to make your site get found? Well, there are many topics on Search Engine Optimization or SEO, that we have covered in the past. If you have missed out on those, feel free to read some of our past articles for more information on that topic.

So, let’s assume you have done the right things to get your site found on the major search engines. What do you do now? How do you get those visitors to become customers? Let’s take a moment to talk about one way you can make your site stand out from the rest.


Custom Photographs

If you have looked at most web sites out there you will see that they are full of stock photographs. You know the ones I am talking about. I think we have all seen the photo of an attractive young lady wearing a headset on a website when they are talking about some form of contact. There really isn’t anything “wrong” with that type of photo.

There is, however, an opportunity to stand out in a cookie-cutter market. Use a real photo of one of your real team members in their real office. You can even use props, that have the company name on them, in the photo, to add credibility. Customers like to know who they are dealing with in real life. It adds credibility. It enhances the sense of security. There are enough faceless corporations out there. Why not try to emulate the true nature of your company and stand apart from those who would remain anonymous.


Stock Photos vs Custom Photography

Am I saying that all stock photos are bad? NO! There is a proper time and a place for stock photographs. However, there are some areas on your web site that could be enhanced by using custom photos. Here are a few ideas:

  • Photos of your staff on an about us page to help customers feel more comfortable with dealing with your company and to be able to put a face with a name when they contact you by email or phone.
  • Photos of the exterior of your office building that help customers find your office or store when they are driving.
  • Photos of the interior of your office or store that will help customers get a feel for who you are and what they can expect when visiting.
  • Photos of actual products on the shelf or in use, so that customers can see what your product or service looks like in use.
  • Anywhere you want to create a sense of relationships and being approachable.

Remember, these photos are not totally necessary, but studies have shown that visitors are more likely to become customers on web sites where they can see actual people, places and products that the company offers. The old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” holds true more in our online world than most anywhere else in life. Is there anywhere on your site that could benefit from a little bit of custom photography? I’ll bet there is.