Our thanks to every reader who has contributed their wise, witty and wonderful comments to the SEOigloo blog this past year. We’re always excited when you stop by here and share a word or two with us. We learn from you.
Please allow us to send you the very warmest greetings of the season and wishes for a bright and fulfilling 2009!
Everyone is on a budget. No one understands better than I that small and local-oriented business owners have a limit to what they can invest in the promotion of their business, both on and off the web. Mike Blumenthal has just published an utterly fascinating interview with a California Central Valley sewing machine and vacuum dealer who is performing a careful juggling act of promotion efforts, measuring results and counting pennies. Most small business owners have to do this and the smart ones treat the whole experience as an ongoing learning process. Over time, the business owner learns which efforts make the biggest difference to smooth operations and the bottom line. I came away from Mike’s interview with admiration for the interviewee’s drive to thrive.
I wish I could say the same for all of the local-focused business owners I speak with. Not long ago, we were approached by a B&B owner who said he was ready to dedicate himself to getting more business from the web. He asked us to check him out online and tell him how we could help him meet his goals. That’s the kind of request I really go for.
Rubbing my hands together in eager anticipation of a potentially great project, I started my research by visiting his website. It wasn’t a pretty picture. The site had been designed a decade earlier by ‘a friend’ and it certainly looked that way. Still, it had some nice things going for it including a section on local events and tourist destinations. I saw some good raw materials to work with there and massive opportunity for improving the visual impression the outdated design and fuzzy photos must have been making on anyone visiting the site. So, step number one yielded many indications that I could put on my designer hat and work wonders for the business.
SEO was badly needed, sitewide. My SEO hat (which is a red sunbonnet) was at the ready there, too, for step number 2, and we’d get the site flowing more smoothly with a bit of usability work.
Step 3 involved taking a look at the local rankings the company was getting. Again, opportunity for improvement was jumping out at me all over the place. Get a review program going, get some new citations, get some new listings in the right places and we could have seen good results in the 10-pack, Maps and Organic, I believe.
But it was when I hit step 4 that my hat sort of fell askew. User reviews are an amazingly valuable tool for gauging public perception of a B&B. People love to review the places they stay and we found a pretty good number of reviews of this business, but what they were saying took me aback quite a bit. Apparently, there was a serious problem with the plumbing of the business in question. Rather than repairing the issue, the business owner requested that guests deposit their used lavatory paper in a basket next to the toilet. No, I am not kidding. Guests were forbidden to flush their paper.
Questions about health codes aside, I read through every review I could find with heightened interest. Nearly every review of the lodgings mentioned this oddity with the plumbing. You sort of have to picture me taking all of this in, asking myself, “hmm…what do I think about this?” and noting, with some astonishment, that despite this sanitary irregularity, the business had received more positive than negative reviews. Yet, nearly all of them mentioned the commode conundrum, even when saying, “I really didn’t mind having to put my soiled paper in a basket. I had a wonderful time!”
To say that this opened my eyes to a side of human nature previously unknown to me would be an understatement. I personally can’t envision my husband and I having a romantic weekend getaway with a basket of…well, unmentionables…at our side. But it takes all kinds to make a world, and the study of the user reviews showed me that a B&B can stay in business, even with irregular lodgings, because there are people who honestly don’t seem to mind the situation. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t read it in reviewers’ own words repeatedly. And, no, they didn’t strike me as phony.
But then there were the negative reviews…quite a few of them…where the unhappy guest had been utterly disgusted by their experience and would clearly not be returning for another stay.
I sat back and thought this over. Here were 2 groups of people: those who didn’t mind a broken toilet on their vacation and those who did. A picture began to form in my mind.
User reviews that refer to a B&B as filthy and horrific are pretty damaging. In this case, I’m not sure how an expert at reputation management would reconcile a sterling reputation with an unusable restroom. I couldn’t see any way for the business to be ‘protected’ from a continuing stream of further reviews couched in extremely negative language. If fixing the plumbing was not being seen as a viable option by the business owner, how could I help them?
Well, believe it or not, I figured it out. I thought long and hard about the location of this business. Though it is currently one of the pricier regions in its state, and populated with millionaires, not long ago, the area was considered a hippie haven, home to the artsy-granola-crunching crowd. This reputation for earthiness still lingers in the environs, and the region still draws many natural-minded folks because of its tremendous natural beauty. These had to be the happy customers who were still thrilled with their visit, despite plumbing hassles. The answer, then, was to stop billing the B&B as a cutesy Victorian vacation paradise, and start billing it as a REAL taste of the Authentic 70’s of the celebrated, still-remembered, but almost vanished past. Suddenly, I could see it. The B&B was already offering organic breakfasts and chemical-free housekeeping. They were just a step away from fulfilling their potential as a totally funky but earthy and affordable place to stay in a desirable and very pricey region of the state.
While I could never bring myself to see a broken bathroom as an asset, I was able to get creative enough to see how I could help this business to improve the accuracy and usefulness of their website as well as their online reputation by targeting the right customers with a very carefully worded, right message: Hey, it’s kind of funky here, but you’re going to love it! We’re the 70’s _____ town you remember! Peace, love and nature, man. Can you dig it?
I could have turned this request down, but I happen to have a soft spot for naturalness, and while it doesn’t extend to a lack of basic cleanliness, I decided I’d put my very best thoughts for the B&B into a proposal that, if accepted, I was sure would work wonders for this hospitality business. I shared my concerns, my suggestions and my visionary solution with the owner and…he turned me down.
Laugh with me, here.
“I had no idea it would cost so much.”
What did I expect? The guy won’t even fix the pipes in his inn. What hat was I wearing to go on this odyssey of bending over backwards to help someone who is so poorly funded that his guests can’t flush their toilets? It must have been my silly hat. I hung up the receiver after speaking with the owner and had to laugh at myself. After this many years in this business, shouldn’t I have seen that one coming?
So, we won’t be working our magic for the Little B&B that couldn’t afford a plumber and couldn’t afford to make a decent effort on the web. Perhaps I should have framed my comeback along the lines of, “well look, I know it’s an investment for you, but after the new site sends you X amount of new guests it will have paid for itself and all the money earned after that can go to hire a plumber! Just think of it!” I’m almost sorry I didn’t say that.
But, I didn’t say it, and I’m not even mentioning the name of this business because I feel kind of sorry for them in a way. The economy is in trouble, and everyone is on a budget. I have a feeling I could have talked sense to a business owner like the one Mike interviewed, and I suspect we wouldn’t have been starting the conversation with the disadvantage of a store full of broken appliances, but every so often, you run into these situations where it’s time to throw up your hands and give up. If you’re going to succeed, you’ve got to have some money to invest. There’s no way around it. Even the nicest designer or SEO can’t change that for a client, and it’s always uncomfortable for me to have to explain such a basic concept to a person who is looking for those #1 rankings.
But this time, I think it was really my fault that the idea progressed to the proposal stage. Where did I put my smart hat?
Matt McGee has been writing about a subject over at Search Engine Land that I feel is of considerable interest and worthy of discussion. His recent articles on Cyberchondria and Paging Dr. Google: Will Google Replace Your Doctor?, in effect, document the fact that people are increasingly turning to the Internet for medical answers with both good and bad results.
The obvious danger in using Google to diagnose yourself is that you may having nothing but the stomach flu that’s going around, but become convinced that you’ve got a terminal illness. No matter whether you are using a resource as authoritative as the Mayo Clinic or an aggregate adsense site, your symptoms have the potential to appear to match up with an almost limitless number of illnesses. You may cause yourself needless worry, up at 3 AM, coming to the conclusion that you’ve got a fatal disease when, in fact, you just ate something bad. At the same time, your reasonable concerns might be falsely allayed by an Internet site that tells you not to worry about symptoms when you should be visiting a doctor ASAP. Yahoo! Answers is riddled with lay people giving unqualified advice about medical conditions and a situation like this is almost certain to mislead some searchers, causing unwarranted stress or putting their precious health in jeopardy.
It Takes Fertile Ground To Create This Situation
Why would people trust their health to the web, knowing it’s the same thing that provides them with silly cat videos and Adwords ads for the latest fad diet? Anyone with a domain name and hosting can publish anything on the web, including their personal accounts of having been abducted by aliens. It takes a special situation that will lead adults to suspend their discernment and skepticism in order to put their trust in random documents published by unknown, unqualified sources, and I would propose that several factors are contributing to this phenomenon of paging Dr. Google.
1) Prolonged, chronic or mysterious health complaints can make a person desperate. Pain is especially apt to make a person reach out for relief and help wherever they can find it. Every day, Americans purchase ‘magic’ formulae to make them thinner, smarter, happier, healthier from unbelievably dubious sources whether they find them on the web or in the back pages of rubbishy magazines.
2) 50 million Americans are living without health insurance. This is a shameful situation for our country, and many families who can afford $60/month for Internet service cannot afford $600/month for health coverage. Once you’ve got the Internet, medical ‘advice’ is ‘free’. A lack of experience with the varied quality of content published on the web may make it difficult for people to determine whether Standford University or Bob’s Purple Pill Site is a more trustworthy source of medical information. It costs the same amount to visit either one of them and if you don’t have the money to see a doctor, it’s a pretty natural outcome that you’d like to get whatever help you can by diagnosing yourself with the help of Google.
3) Local medical services are disappearing in some areas. The largest city nearest to where I live is down to 2 hospitals now and may soon be down to one. There used to be 5 of them, when the population was much smaller. Doctors’ offices are critically understaffed – there’s nothing quite like being horrendously ill and hearing that, ‘doctor can see you 3 weeks from now.’ The fraud that is U.S. Health Insurance has driven many physicians to stop accepting insurance so that they can make a living, and locally, many have had to leave private practice in order to join corporate health care providers like Kaiser, leaving their patients without the personal care they once counted on. The Internet is always open and always ready to give your medical issues priority, no matter where you live.
4) There are a lot of crummy doctors out there. I had one tell me I needed to get a hobby when, in fact, I needed surgery. I’ve seen more than my share of doctors, and the majority of them have been, in my opinion, unfit to serve the public. Everything from dangerous misdiagnoses to atrocious communication skills await the US citizen who goes to the professionals for medical help. Having a medical degree doesn’t necessarily make you a gifted master of the healing arts and it is likely that insurance woes and understaffing are only exacerbating the disorganized and dissatisfying situation patients experience when seeking medical care these days. It’s a lot more comfortable using your mouse than it is sitting in a waiting room for an-hour-and-a-half in order to see a doctor you barely know for 3 minutes.
5) Too few doctors appear to feel a personal responsibility for their patients’ well-being these days. Long gone are the days when the country doctor made house calls to the family to take care of everyone from Grandpa to Little Billy. Rather, nightmarish insurance constraints and a constant barrage of sales calls and ad campaigns from pharmaceutical corporations stand between the doctor and the patient, preventing them from knowing one another as whole people. My personal experience with medical care has chiefly involved doctors quickly prescribing large quantities of the latest drugs for me, without working to find the root cause of symptoms or to understand my overall physical and mental health. Visits are rushed to the point that you come away feeling that the doctor needed to be someplace other than in the room with you, and that drugs are the answer to everything. It’s as though the doctor has changed roles with the pharmacist, rather than standing in the honored position of trusted overseer for your total well-being. The Internet doesn’t know you, either, but at least you know yourself while you are searching the web for medical advice, and you can take all the time you need.
It isn’t my intention to dispairage doctors as individuals, though I’m quite willing to utterly denounce this country’s current medical care/insurance situation. Doubtless people have had better experiences with professional medicine than I have, and I’ve even recently found a doctor I think is well above average in terms of her more holistic approach to human health. I am simply trying to point out why Americans may be especially prone to visit Dr. Google rather than an offline MD these days. I think my 5 reasons actually do present a pretty good case for why people would be seeking alternative paths to better health, but I feel concern about the outcomes of those paths and the very real dangers of lay persons, con artists and quacks misleading worried, desperate and sick Internet users.
Are There Positive Aspects of Dr. Google?
I can think of 3 of them.
1) If you’ve been given a diagnosis by a doctor who is too rushed to give you the consultation you deserve, using the web to research your condition can help you create a list of concise questions to come back to the doctor with on your next visit. You may read about alternative treatment options and brand new research that your doctor may not be aware of. The better informed you are about health problems you face, the more you are likely to be able to get out of your official visits with your medical provider.
2) If you suffer from a chronic ailment, the Internet is rich with support groups for a staggering number of conditions. Painful and long-term illnesses often go hand-in-hand with depression and it may be that joining an online chat room, message board or forum will help you connect with people around the world who really understand what you’re going through, in a way that your local loved ones simply don’t. I think support groups of this kind have real merit as a weapon against isolation and mental illness.
3) I’ve lost count of the number of people, particularly the number of women, I know who have exhausted their Western medicine options in dealing with chronic health matters. In such cases, the Internet can act as a research tool for alternative medicine. Because of the way we view health care in this country, non-Western approaches to health care tend to be viewed with suspicion by the ‘establishment’, and while there is some reasoning behind this, when a person cannot find the help they need from traditional approaches, they are certainly within their rights to seek it elsewhere. Google may be a useful tool in helping you learn about local herbalists, yoga classes, acupuncture options, pain management, etc.
I do think there is value in having medical information on the web, if it is used with wisdom and discretion.
The Safety Net
Matt McGee’s articles point out the danger of cyberchondria – the case of people becoming falsely convinced that they are suffering from illnesses they don’t actually have. I’ve made a point of referencing the serious hazards of lay persons misdiagnosing ailments. How concerned should we be about this fairly recent proliferation of user behavior forged by the existence of the web?
Moderately concerned, I’d say, and I’ll explain why. Because modern medicine is so deeply based in the giving of prescription drugs, most people will still need to go see a doctor in order to obtain this type of treatment. So long as Americans aren’t allowed to dose themselves with antibiotics and steroids, so long as they’ve got to go into a doctor’s office to get that little slip of paper signed before the pharmacist will provide serious drugs for them, I think most people who are in a position to see a doctor will continue to do so.
And those who can’t afford it are out of luck. That’s the unhappy bottom line. They may take over-the-counter medicines for complaints that deserve professional medical attention. They may turn to the web for faulty advice. The poor are alike in all countries. Remember that there are villages in third-world countries where antibiotics are still unknown and where people die every day for lack of simple medical care. With 50 Million uninsured Americans, our country contains a large population of people who are basically living as third-world citizens, in the midst of excessive riches. This is, of course, totally unacceptable and I’m holding Mr. Obama to his promise to change this dismal truth about our country, but in the meantime, for the destitute, perhaps the medical advice available on the web should be viewed as a potential benefit for those millions shut out of the insurance system. Perhaps it’s a case of some help being better than none at all. I’m not sure.
It’s a tough issue. A tough question. What do you think?
Greetings Friends & Readers,
Just a little note to let you know that we’ll be out of the office this week, but will be back next Monday to keep the homefires burning here at the SEOigloo Blog.
Feel free to email us in the meantime if you need us as we will be checking our messages. And, if you’re looking to hire a web design/SEO firm for your new exciting project, we’d love to hear from you and will respond to all inquiries next week.