Thursday, April 2, 2015

"SEO is Kind of Like Witchcraft"

Headlines, Websites, Social Media, and all Things Internet for Writers
BinderCon LA Recap #1

Best Headline Ever: How to Keep Your Story from Getting Sucked into the Internet Black Hole
Jen Sabella – Director of Social Engagement for

Jen Sabella started with her informative presentation on Internet headlines describing the kinds of headlines "old school white men" like:

“I love puns,” they say.

“No! Get the puns out!” she says.

Her advice is to catch the reader at the headline, or they won’t read it. More specifically, “Six-word headlines are the perfect headline,” and the first three words should be “dynamic.”

She used her mom as an example of catching the reader’s attention.

“My mom is 55, and she gets all her news from facebook. She is a millennial, apparently.”

Sabella has specific suggestions for tweets, not just headlines. She said the “ideal tweet is 100 characters,” and be sure to use your own voice, just like you would in your writing. The key is to find a “really interesting nugget” to tweet with a link to a story. Each story has a “nugget of difference.”

Jen Sabella, headline and social media expert
“If people are responding to something on Twitter, that’s your headline.”

She reminded the audience that people are getting frustrated with “click bait” headlines. “People want direct. Serve the reader. Deliver on your promise. Don’t lure people in on false pretenses.”

As someone who uses hashtags frequently, I was surprised to hear her thoughts on them.

“I tend not to hashtag headlines,” Sabella said. “You either have to be first or be dynamic. It’s more beneficial to have a headline of what you brought to the table, instead of stuffing a hashtag in there.”

What’s most important is “your angle.”

She said, “If you nail your headline, you should be able to tweet it,” and “if you tweet something, you can tweet it again three hours later.”

If the tweet isn’t getting the attention you want, “tweak it.” If you tweet the same story after a three-hour time frame, “You reach a different audience every single time.”

When you’re pitching a story, “noticing the voice of the publication is the battle,” she said. “Change the way you present it for publication. Read their headlines.”

About search engine optimization, Sabella explained, “Search has changed so much. At HuffPost, we owned the SEO game. Now Google is on to it. They care about what’s being shared.”

Throughout the day, I heard this same theme: What’s becoming more important than SEO is how often something is shared. Google is “prioritizing the love [a story] is being given, rather than SEO terms. If you’re showing it to more eyeballs, then it’s getting more views. That’s better than likes and comments.”

Plus, “negative comments are by far preferred to positives,” sadly.

Rapt BinderCon audience members
An audience member asked how to incorporate images into a headline strategy.

“It’s based on whatever facebook feels like doing that day. They are always changing algorithms.”

She suggested that “if you can explain news in a headline”—without giving too much away—“do it.
There’s a time to be literary, and there’s a time to just tell people what they are reading.”

She talked about her philosophy about changing writers’ headlines. “If reporters get mad about a huge headline change, I’ll change it immediately. This happens all the time.”

She said if she plans to make a big headline change, she’ll inform the writer ahead of time (“Gchat them”) to find a compromise. “It’s a delicate balance,” Sabella said.

“When submitting a freelance story, send headline suggestions.” Your best headline should be at the top of the pitch. “Communicate with the editor. You’re the best person to sum up your piece. Tell them, ‘I want to be part of the headline conversation.’ Own your headline. Nail it in the pitch.”

She suggested “experiment on social media. You won’t be spamming people. My mom posts on facebook 40 times a day, and I only see like three posts.”

When writing a post on facebook, “writing 40 characters is ideal” before posting a story. There is a caveat, however. Don’t post things like, “Holy shit,” or “OMG,” or “Can you believe this?” because “people are getting smarter than that,” and you’ll just invite the “same trolls to comment on these” types of what-do-you-think posts.

 “Think about you reading this. What draws you to the story?”

Her final advice: “Bounce ideas off people you trust, who know you, who care about your work. I bounce things off my 21-year-old sister because, ‘You’re the youth!’ She sends me Buzzfeed article, Buzzfeed article, Buzzfeed article.”

Other recommendations: Use Bitly and Pixler.

Websites for Writers
Laura Birek

Birek is a triple threat: a writer, a web developer, and a knitter. All three are represented on her website with a “what’s the deal?” explanation.

“When I’m sitting in a coffee shop looking around [at men], I think, “Oh yeah, you’re all writing your screenplays and I’m coding.”

She added, “But I’m also writing a screenplay.”

We all laughed. I laughed harder when she said, “Coding is fun!” because html makes me crazy.

Triple threat Laura Birek: writer, web developer, knitter
But, she said, when building your writer website, “pick a CMS site. Don’t get stuck in html. There’s no reason to these days.”

Unless you’re not planning to build your website anytime soon, she recommends you “register the domain at the same time as buying hosting. It’s cheaper and on the same bill.”

I realized I hadn’t registered the name of my book yet, and went home to look it up. Someone already owns the url, so I modified it. Now I own two urls (including my name), so what Birek had to say next was beneficial.

“Get private registration,” even though, “it costs more.”

She likened the three types of web hosting to living situations. “Shared is like living in an apartment. Virtual (VPS) is like living in a townhouse. Dedicated is like owning a home. It’s the most expensive,” but also the “most secure. Most people use shared hosting. You can upgrade later.”

Birek explained what web hosting actually is: It’s “buying a chunk of a computer to a web connected computer to support your files.”

After you register a domain and select a host, it’s time to build your site.  She presented three options: 1. A static html CMS.
2. A GUI-based (graphical user interface) CMS.
3. A self-hosted CMS, in which you’d install a program that runs on your computer. “It requires more setup and security updates,” but you can “completely customize it. It’s good for events calendars.”

A worthwhile offering at BinderCon
If you choose Squarespace to build your site, you have the choice of 30 templates. “It starts to look repetitive,” Birek said. However, “Squarespace is a graphical user interface more than WordPress. They have more graphics these days. They are improving.”

She added, “In WordPress you can go into the back-end and see the html code,” and “WordPress has 1,000 themes. Some look great. Some don’t.”

Also, “Wix and WordPress are free for the basic version, but not free with your own domain name.”
The good news about having your own domain name, is that you can have your own email. You can have that email forwarded to Gmail in Google’s advanced settings.

She recommends self-hosting for various reasons, but most important, “Please don’t download free themes!” and “Do not use GoDaddy!”

Birek recommends, “Start with a good platform moving forward,” and “install Google Analytics no matter what” because “it’s powerful and free.” 

When deciding on your content, “pick your content strategy first and then pick a theme.” Decide “what’s the point of the website?” and “work from that.”

What Birek said about SEO was reminiscent of Sabella’s presentation: “SEO is kind of like witchcraft. Google is constantly changing their algorithms, which keeps people guessing.”

So, in that case, the content of a writer’s website should include “rich, contextual words on the content page and a lot of content.”

With the landing page—or home page—“I think content is more important than experience. Splash pages are always a bad idea,” she said. “A fair amount of text on the home page helps with SEO, which is “really, really complicated. Err on the side of more content, more text, and more descriptions.

“Just think about why someone is visiting. Try to give them what they want.” 

Birek is also “all about finding images,” and recommended Flickr Creative Commons to start.

“Under  ‘any license,’ you’re allowed to use the photos with attribution.” She also said, “All photos should have alt tags.”

Your site should also have a “responsive design,” which “responds to the width of your browser. This is where everything is going,” Birek said. “There is no reason to have a site without responsive design.”

She also pointed out that many site designs are now “mobile first,” meaning how a site works and looks on the PC is secondary. “Everything is flipping to this,” she said.

On your site, “create a field that says, ‘sign up for my mailing list,’ as well as a “footer with a contact form on every page.” Photo credits can also be linked in the footer.

Birek suggested that if you find another writer’s website that you like, you can right-click on the “view page source” to find out what host that site is using.  

“There are not a lot of good author websites,” she said. “I would like this room to be the vanguards.”

Other recommendations:
A Small Orange (“They have great customer service.”)
Blue Host
Dream Host (a free outlining tool)
Themeforest (premium themes from WordPress) (“Themeforest has themes for writers. I like Themeforest.")
Wikimedia Commons (You can find a visual to go with a location of an event on your calendar.)
iStock Photo
“Mailchimp [for mailing lists] is really good. They have plug-ins for WordPress.”
“Install an SEO plug-in like Yoast. Yoast adds social media headers” and “keeps them updated.”

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