August 2010

Are You Having A Great Green Summer?

website design for green businesses

May this be the year that huge numbers of Americans step out of the bleary glare of the supermarket and onto the dirt road where their nearest organic small farmer is selling what is truly freshest and best from his farm stand or store. It’s August and you’d be hard put to find a better local eating month than this one, no matter where you live in the country. What you haven’t grown yourself, you are likely to find within a couple of miles from you, farm fresh and delicious. At right is a little photo of a sampling of what’s tasty on our family farm right now: zucchini, snow peas, lettuce, spinach, chives and tomatoes. Add to this cucumbers, artichokes, blackberries, strawberries, plums, nectarines, the first apples, gorgeous summer squash, beets, peppers…well, you’ve got a ton of fantastic, fresh, local foods to choose from, no matter where you live.

The Sense and Economics of Local Eating
If you’re buying your tomatoes from a supermarket, you’re not only eating old produce that was picked before it ripened on the vine, but you are also paying for the transport and oil it took to get that sub-par tomato to you. Local farmers pick when foods are ripe and sell them within a couple of days, and while you pay for the gas to get to a farm or farm market for anything you haven’t grown yourself, you know that’s what you’re paying for – it isn’t added onto your tomato’s cost. We are lucky enough to live 2 minutes down the road from the best organic farm I’ve ever encountered, run by an elder who must have 10 green thumbs. For $25, we come home from his farm stand with a couple of huge bags loaded with his picked-daily produce, to supplement what we grow here. The difference in cost compared to a couple of bags of groceries from, say, the local Whole Foods, is huge. And, the difference in taste and freshness is simply incomparable.

I don’t believe there is a more important activity going on from coast to coast in America than the Local Foods Movement. Getting into the habit of buying directly from farmers is not only economical, it’s really fun. Rather than weaving your way through urban traffic to get to that asphalt parking lot and those sliding glass doors, you are tooling around the countryside, getting fresh air and sunshine, forming meaningful bonds with the skilled people who are growing your food. The wind is in your hair, the soil is on the soles of your shoes and your understanding of community is deepened.

Not sure if there are any farmers or farm markets where you live? Check out LocalHarvest.org which has got to be one of the coolest sites on the web. They’ve not only mapped out local food across America, but they’ve got a really interesting multi-author blog, forum and other resources that will connect you with the food nearest you.

Got A Green Business?
At Solas Web Design, we revere green business models, and if you’ve got a local farm and need help promoting it on the web, please do contact us. We’ll probably be in the kitchen making dill pickles and pickled peppers much of this week, but we’ll drop everything to answer the phone and listen to your unique story. We understand farmers, because we are farmers and we are ready to do everything we can to increase your visibility. Like teachers, farmers have long been grossly underpaid in the United States, considering how vital their contributions are. We’d like to see that change, and we believe the Internet can facilitate this. Everybody eats, but I’d rather have people buying from your small farm than from Cal-organics or another giant agribusinesses. I bet you would, too! Let’s talk about this.

In the meantime, I’d like to wish all readers a great green summer, happy growing and happy times at your local farms!

Are These Reviews Authentic? You Be The Judge.

SEOigloo blog reader and professional reputation consultant, Paul Sherland got in touch with me recently because he’d stumbled across something that seemed a little odd to him when looking at the Google Place Page of a local business, Goodson Honda West of Houston, Texas. I thought what Paul noticed was worthy of sharing with you, and I want to ask you, as a favor, to please comment on this post and give your personal opinion as to whether these reviews are authentic or not.

The Low Down
Goodson Honda West has more than 65 reviews for their business in Google Maps/Places. A glance at the top 5 prominently displayed on their Place Page bespeaks a glowingly satisfied customer base. All 5 stars!

are these reviews real

It’s great to see any business get such positive reviews, and I’m sure such results have a strong influence on whether new customers walk in the door, not to mention volume of reviews affecting rankings within Maps and the Google 7 Pack. But, something seems a little funny here.

odd looking reviews
When I clicked into the profiles of the five reviewers (Salsa, Gloomy, RickyBobby, Gamma and Fo) whose reviews were being shown in the featured area of this company’s Place Page, I observed a somewhat odd pattern. What you see running along the left side of this article is my screenshot of the profile of Salsa – the reviewer in the top spot on Goodson Honda’s Place Page. This screenshot shows the activity on this profile on a single date – August 2nd, 2010. In red, you will note my highlighting of the various cities and states within which Salsa has left reviews. On August 2nd, Salsa left 65 reviews in regions spanning from British Columbia, to Washington DC to California. The types of businesses are diverse, but there seems to be a strong emphasis on car dealerships across the country and August 2nd happens also to be the day on which this reviewer left a review of Goodson Honda. All reviews left by Salsa are 5 stars.

Now, if you visit the Place Page I’ve linked to in the opening paragraph of this piece, and you take a look at the profiles of the other 4 reviewers I’ve mentioned (Gloomy, RickyBobby, Gamma and Fo), I believe that you, too, will see this same pattern of large numbers of reviews being left for businesses all over N. America within a small number of days by these reviewers.

In fact, if you look at the profiles of the top 15 reviewers on Goodson Honda’s Place Page, you will see that all of them follow the pattern. This is as far down the list as I had time to look, but perhaps this pattern repeats throughout more of the list of reviewers who have left reviews for this business.

Could These Reviewers Be Authentic?
Let’s imagine some scenarios in which the top 15 reviewers of Goodson Honda would coincidentally share such similar characteristics, and yet be legitimate reviewers:

1. Each of the top 15 is a jet set traveler. Salsa, for example, appears to have bought numerous cars all over the country, rented an apartment in Chicago, bought a bike in DC, and enjoyed a great night’s sleep at hotels in Texas, California, N. Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, all on August 2nd. I’ve never lived the lifestyle of the rich and famous, but perhaps the top 15 reviewers are people of tremendous wealth and energy, who crisscross the country nonstop with speed and luxury, and then stop to buy a little Honda in Houston.

2. These are true power reviewers, capable of turning out 65 legitimate reviews in a single day of places they remember doing business with in the past. The most reviews I have ever managed to write in a day are 3 or 4, but these people are truly dedicated to improving Google’s index and the user experience by creating vast quantities of helpful copy for the public good.

3. Not only are these 15 reviewers disinterested public benefactors, but they are also eternally happy souls. Nothing less than a 5 star experience has ever entered their charmed lives. They are always 100% satisfied.

4. Yelp has been accused of having paid people to populate their index with reviews in the early days of their business. Perhaps Salsa, Gamma, BobbyRickey et al. are Google employees, trying to beef up their review index with paid reviews of their own? Google has, after all, recently added 300 employees and they are doing all kinds of new things with Local.

These are the scenarios I have been able to imagine. Perhaps you can think of others.

What Do I Really Think Is Going On Here?
Far be it from me to point fingers, name names or make exciting accusations, but I will point the way back to an article my honored colleague, Mike Blumenthal, wrote last spring, highlighting a service called ReviewBoost. This article fostered considerable discussion regarding this interesting form of paid service in which businesses can hire a firm to publish only positive reviews of them across the web. Re-reading Mike’s piece and looking at the profiles to which Paul drew my attention, I feel I may understand what is going on here. Do you?

WWTFTCD? – or – What Would The FTC Do?
At the end of 2009, the Federal Trade Commission rewrote their guidelines governing endorsements and testimonials. Whether you are a wise marketer or a wary consumer, I advise you to read the guidelines in full, but their key point is that all relationships in advertising, endorsements and testimonials must be publicly disclosed. As I understand it, if money, goods or other forms or benefits are part of the scenario, you are legally obligated to make that clear to the public. So, for example, if reviews were the result of a paid service that was making it look like a specific person had done business with a company when, in fact, they didn’t…well, the FTC might now have a big problem with this.

We already know that Google has a big problem with inauthentic reviews. Their review guidelines read like this (emphasis mine):

* Don’t spam or post fake reviews intended to boost or lower ratings.
* Don’t post or link to content that is sexually explicit or contains profanity.
* Don’t post or link to content that is abusive or hateful or threatens or harasses others.
* Don’t post or or link to any file that contains viruses, corrupted files, “Trojan Horses,” or any other contaminating or destructive features that may damage someone else’s computer.
* Don’t post any material that violates the copyrights or other intellectual property rights of others.
* Don’t impersonate any person, or falsely state or otherwise misrepresent your affiliation with a person or entity.
* Don’t violate any other applicable law or regulation.
* Don’t use comments as a forum for advertisement.

That’s pretty clear, but I think some grey areas may remain and these demand discussion. Are reviews fake if they are gathered by a marketer, say, via telephone, from a database of a company’s customers? Do you think this violates the FTC and Google’s guidelines? How could disclosure occur in the review scenario, and should it have to? Who suffers from paid review gathering – the marketer whose reputation is at stake, the marketer’s employee whose Google Maps account could get banned, the client whose whole profile may be banned, the consumer who may be fooled? Will consumers scent something fishy if they see nothing but 5 star reviews; will any of them actually look deeper into the reviewers’ profiles, as Paul and I have done? Do business owners have any idea of what they may be getting themselves into if they hire a marketer who sells them a review gathering service? What are the risks, benefits and long term consequences of this relatively new but definitely newsworthy form of Internet marketing?

And, for my final question, which I asked at the outset of this piece but will repeat here:

What about the example I’ve cited? Are these reviews authentic? What’s your take? I want to know!

Wildly Celebrating Google Places New Owner Response Feature!

congratulations google

It was just last week that I wrote this article sympathizing with a local business owner who was agonizing over the fact that he had no way to respond to what he felt was a fake, malicious review of his business. Yes, just last week, but for years now I’ve bemoaned the lack of power local businesses have had to refute or reply to user reviews in Google Maps/Places. Well, my happy day has come, and kudos to Mike Blumenthal for breaking the BIG HUGE news that verified business owners can now respond directly to Google-based reviews.

My colleagues in Local SEO are speculating about Google’s motives for making this improvement – it may provide a new incentive for uninitiated business owners to get involved in Maps/Places, claim their listings and start actively managing them. Good point! Whatever the case may be, I just want to send a thank you loud and clear to Google for implementing this new feature. It was badly needed and I feel that this move on Google’s part is indicative of an increasingly committed attitude from Google towards the various aspects of their Local apps.

What a relief it will be for me to stop having to be the bearer of bad news to frustrated business owners on this topic. No more will I have to tell them they have no voice to respond. Let the owner responses flood in and the conversation begin!

Our Professional Copywriting Services Section Gets A Rewrite

Copywriting News at Solas Web Design

Mama says I was born with a pen in my hand and a curiosity about language in my soul. It must be true, as a fascination with the written and spoken word is so much a part of me, it almost is me. Small wonder, then, that when my husband and I founded Solas Web Design, I ended up editing or flat-out writing most of the content that appeared on our first clients’ main pages. The goofy thing is, I did it for free. I was so caught up in some personal need not to let those early websites go live with clunky or next-to-no text, I unthinkingly lumped copywriting in with website design and wrote reams of copy, gratis, for business owners who probably didn’t even realize the value of what I was doing for them. Very beneficent, and dumb, of me.

Eventually, I began billing for hours spent and we developed a section of our website for copywriting work as a stand-alone service. This has generated some business, but to be honest, the majority of my copywriting work is still taking place within the scenario of website design or local search marketing. Last week, in a lull between client projects, I revisited the copywriting section of our website and decided I wasn’t satisfied with it. Rather than letting this keep me up at night, I’ve spent the past few days completely rewriting the 5 pages contained in this portion of the site and I’d like to invite you to visit our new and improved copywriting services section.

I feel I’ve made these specific, significant improvements:

  • The voice on the former pages was somewhat impersonal. Client and colleague testimonials in the intervening years have gone to my head and I’ve gained the confidence to present myself as the copywriter behind the pages. It’s the difference between suggesting that someone hire a good copywriter and that someone hire me. I owe thanks to everyone who has helped me reach this more confident position about the value of what I can do.
  • I have included many more links to live examples of the work I’ve done for for all kinds of interesting clients.
  • Calls to action are stronger.
  • More information has been provided for user education.
  • I think the flow is better; users should be able to navigate within this section of the site in a more sensible manner.

You know the old saying about the shoemakers’ children often being shoeless. How true this is of so many of us in this industry. We give our all to client projects, sometimes at the neglect of our own websites and work. I think the website design section of my firm’s site is badly in need of a makeover, but finding the time to do this will be challenging. I shouldn’t complain if business is good enough to keep me from attending to improvements I’d like to make to SolasWebDesign.net, but the copywriting services pages were ones I couldn’t let slip any longer. I love website design and local search marketing, but when I write for great small American businesses, there is something unique about the strengths and feelings this work elicits from me.

It would be gratifying to spend a larger percentage of my available time on such projects and we’ll have to see if the rewritten pages generate more interest. I hope they will, as my passion for telling the stories of unique businesses is very sincere. Are you looking to improve your business by developing a meaningful relationship with a professional copywriter? I’d love to hear from you.