The Evils of Canned Content

real estate canned copy about fireplacesAs real estate agents, many of my clients are offered great “member benefits” for this association or that lead generation company … including canned content for them to use in their newsletters, blogs, on their websites. It’s packaged as a bonus for them and tied up in a little red bow of lies.

If your membership organization is offering you this, you may want to learn just a little more about why duplicate content doesn’t help and may actually hurt your site’s SEO, how easy it is to tell if copy on someone else’s site is canned, and what your alternatives are.

Case In Point:

I went to look over a certain real estate agent’s site on recommendation of one of my peers. I immediately noticed that the bio (which was on the index page) was a labored piece of text, obviously written by an individual uncomfortable writing for public consumption. The sentence structure was awkward, the punctuation was overly excited and the overall impression it left was “amateur.”

She did, however blog. And, according to the dates on her blog she did so regularly. I looked over her posts and it was immediately obvious that the individual who labored over the bio had no hand in the blogs. Out of curiosity, I and pulled the following quote from a blog post she “wrote” on the use of fireplaces: “plus you’ll feel like a regular Mary Poppins by having a chimney sweep in your home” – and Googled it with the quotes in place to be sure I would get identical text verbatim.

And guess what??!?! I got TWELVE pages of results. All of them realtor sites and all of them using this same canned copy source. They didn’t change the copy and quite often didn’t even tweak the title for their area. A few did, but very few. And many of those “bloggers” were posting this same canned copy over on ActiveRain. Seriously?!?!

I’ve been in this business for over 13 years now, working with real estate agents and helping them to do content marketing and I still get shocked by antics like this from my clients’ “competition.” (If only they knew how poorly they were competing!)

So, if you think you are benefiting yourself or improving your site by using “canned” content that someone has given you as a bogus benefit… stop it. STOP IT RIGHT NOW!

How to Effectively Use Canned Copy

If you have canned copy and you are too pressed for time to create your own blogs from scratch, there is a way to enjoy the best of both worlds — convenience and customization. Instead of dropping it in verbatim, use that content as a starting point. Read it, digest it, add your own personal experience, twist to it and make it sparkle with LOCAL and RELEVANT examples. Then offer that information in YOUR OWN WORDS. The idea of blogging is for visitors to get a feel for who you are. Canned copy alone won’t do that.

How to Personalize the Canned Copy

If, for example, you are using the canned content I mentioned above on the topic of getting your fireplace ready for wintertime use, try including the following information:

  • Statistics on the number of homes in your service area with functional fireplaces.
  • Interview a home builder on the pros and cons of fireplaces.
  • Offer a list of cleaning services in the area with links to their site or contact information in on a local directory or yellow pages listing.
  • Get a list of fireplace safety tips from your local fire chief (and give him credit for providing it).
  • Include your own current experiences or memories of living in a house with a fireplace.
  • Link to a website on the history of fireplaces.
  • Include uncommon (by modern standards) uses of fireplaces that are traditional (think popcorn and s’mores) and offer a quick “how to” for your readers to enjoy those uses safely in their own homes.

And when you end the blog, always invite interaction. “If you are looking for a new home with a fireplace, call me. I can help you find just the one to keep you toasty-warm this winter!”

It’s not hard (or harmful) to use canned copy as a springboard — but it’s a bad idea to use it as delivered. If you need a little help getting started with blogging or want advice on how to improve your current blog, hire a professional writer, blogger, or blog consultant. It’s what we do ;)

Groupon: A Deal of the Day That’s No Deal

When is a deal not a savings?My mother sent me a Groupon email this morning. The attached note said “Angela, I thought you would be interested in seeing this.” That’s all it said. The attached Groupon was for a six-page designer website with content and a month of hosting (a $395 value) for $99. It was offered by a company that will remain unnamed.

Visiting that website however was interesting (I know, I know, but working in websites as many years as I have, I couldn’t resist — besides, I had to send my mother SOME type of response, right?)

The Deal

So the “designers” here create your website and host it with a “complementary” month of uninterrupted service… according to the ad. I go to look at the “website features” and their “portfolio” to discover that there are 25 templates to choose from. Basically they are selling a template site with a month of hosting and calling that a value of 400 bucks. Hmmmmm. Then it gets better…

As a web content writer, and someone who tries to stay abreast of the nuances of organic SEO and content marketing — not to mention the recent changes in Google — I found it amusing that this company (which claims to offer SEO Optimization services) would say the following about this so-called product: “While pre-filled content is generically written to work for most businesses, owners can modify the context to their liking.” Can you say “template site with content identical to every OTHER template site they manage to pawn off on people?” I can.

Oh, and after the first month, they will charge you a standard service fee of $19.95 per month for hosting. Oh, and you have to bring your own domain name for them to activate the site.

Crunching the Numbers

So, let me get this “deal” straight… they want $99 up front, plus you to bring your own domain name (let’s call that $10 more… unless you go with one of those wretched domain resellers that charges upwards of $30 per year for a simple .com) and you will need to come up with your own content (because we all know how Google blocks sites with duplicate content – and that “pre-filled content…generically written to work for most businesses” is a total lie.) Then they want to charge you twenty MORE bucks a month for hosting. So the total bill for a year of website with their “deal” costs you $330.

Comparing the Options

Cheaper Themes: Better CMS (Content Management System): Compare that to buying a premium theme for WordPress (great ones can be had for $0-$100). Sure, some cost more — but if we take the median on that and call it $50 you can find pretty much anything you want or need).

It’s also worth noting that the default theme for WordPress is so flexible and customizable that it’s phenomenal. I’ve used some really nice FREE themes (although you have to be careful with those). Oh, and the premium themes (some of them) are already optimized and have fantastically clean code for better SEO.

Bottom line: WordPress can cost whatever will fit into your budget… from nothing to pricy and you get to choose.

No Limitations: With an open-source WordPress based theme, you aren’t limited to six pages… you aren’t limited to anything. I’ve got over ten years worth of blogs and information here on WickedBlog and not ONCE has anything tried to limit me. I also use WordPress on livingsmall.com and for my business site, WickedWriter.com.

WordPress… it’s what’s for business.

Add, change, morph, go a new direction… whatever you want… WordPress and the array of available (and FREE) plugins will let you do it.

Better SEO By Design: Did I mention that Google just LOVES WordPress? (I have no idea what kind of code the “deal” from Groupon offers, since I can’t see the backend, I’m assuming the worst because (in my experience) offers like this have code that looks like it went through a blender… and Google hates messy code.)

Tried, Tested and True Hosting: And if you use my host (and the one I recommend to all my clients) your monthly hosting fee with a GREAT record for uptime and staying abreast of security issues and redundancy backups (backups are free and automatic with them too, btw), it’s going to cost you $6.95 per month – and that INCLUDES your domain name — for a total of $83.40 a year.

If you want to save even more, they offer discounts for referrals so you can link to them, (like I just did above) to get a discount when anyone you refer signs up. I’ve been with them for years and would recommend them (and do) to anyone who asks me. Sometimes I get a referral, most of the time I just get a happy client. Yes, they are that good.

Buyer Beware (and Informed): Any company that promises uninterrupted hosting is as trustworthy as an SEO “expert” that promises to get you on page one of Google. How trustworthy is that? Zero. Not. None. Nada.

You see, no one can promise that. My host is good and 99.8% on average uptime is amazing, but I know enough to understand that even with backups, RAID systems, nearly instantaneous re-routing, and superb techs on staff… there is no such thing as a 100% guarantee.

I also know that anyone promising page one of Google is either: 1.) a liar or 2.) using practices that may get you on page one briefly, before getting your domain blocked permanently. Either way, you and your business are the losers and they walk away smiling, whistling, and pocketing your money, while they look for their next victim….er… I mean “client.”

In conclusion

If you want to get a website up and going, get one that will benefit your business, not hurt it. If you want a personal website, create one that will grow with you — not limit you to a few pages. If you need a website, you have something to say… you should SAY it, not allow “generic” content to enter the picture at all.

If you want a great site, start with WordPress. It’s the ONLY way to go, IMHO. If you want or need it customized, hire a great custom programmer to make the tweaks you need.

If you want great content, but don’t have time to write it yourself, hire me (or another reputable web content writer who knows how to craft content that will woo Google and create qualified organic traffic to your site.)

And even if you don’t use my host, find one that will not hold your site hostage and charge WAY too much to do so.

I hate to see people get “taken in” like this, so I had a little rant. Sometimes that urge just overwhelms me. The rant ends now and you may return to your happy day. ;)

Panda SEO Damage: How Can You Insure Quality Website Content?

Recent updates to Google’s algorithm (Panda and Penguin), have left website owners doing more than the typical “google dance” — they have been in a veritable SEO mosh-pit. If it’s not a content issue, it’s links. It’s not just how to move forward, but how the old content (for some of us over ten years of content!!!) will be viewed by the search giant. We are advised to be careful not to “over-optimize” our sites. There can’t be too much similarity in pages (it’s not merely exact duplicate content anymore) and on and on and on.

There are tons of SEO experts out there trying to tell you how to determine WHICH of the updates hit you and what to do about it, and how to handle if you were hit by BOTH updates in rapid succession (there was an update then a second update, then the first update was updated again). Honestly, it’s pretty scary. Thankfully there is old wisdom that still serves…

The best approach to creating a website Google loves is to create a well-designed, easy-to-navigate website with high-quality content. Period.

(I keep saying that to anyone who will listen… and have for years.)

Just work on serving the people you want to attract. Give them the information they want to read. Write clearly and observe the rules of proper English (assuming of course that your site is written in English). There is some indication that the Panda update actually gives a site bad marks for grammar and spelling. (If only our public schools would be so bold!)

If you have been doing your own content, or hiring a great writer to help you out, you don’t need to worry, right? Well…no. There are a couple other things you need to consider:

  • Be sure your hired-gun copywriter is ethical and is not reselling your content to someone else to use on their site… and therefore damaging your SEO.
  • Make sure content scrapers aren’t coming in and lifting your content and using it on their crappy scraper sites to sell ads… and therefore damaging your SEO.
  • Make sure less-than-honorable competitive website owners aren’t swiping your content and branding it as their own… and therefore damaging your SEO.

How can you tell if this is going on? I’ve got a few tools for your consideration. You may find one or more of them useful:

If you are concerned that an article you wrote on a topic three years ago on your blog may be too similar to an updated version on the same (or a similar) topic, you can:

  1. Rewrite the article, referencing the old article yourself to make sure you aren’t covering the same topics in the same way.
  2. Update the old article, adding in the latest information and republish it as a new, updated article (deleting the old one, but ensuring that the old URL forwards to the new version).
  3. You can use a tool to check to see how similar the articles REALLY are (like similar page checker) and then make your decision to change one, merge them, or delete one.

Regardless of how you decide to handle the old content on your site or the upcoming content… the most important point that Panda makes is that content is king… and will always be king. It’s hard to go wrong if you write for your audience with well-developed topics they want to read. As a writer and as someone who has been preaching this at clients and peers and… well… anyone who would listen, I can’t say I’m hating the change. It kind of feels like job security to me ;)

Which is Better, The Dream or Reality?

Today, the FedEx man delivered my much-coveted purple insulated, stainless steel “sippy” jug. I’ve wanted it for quite some time and was glad to see it arrive. But the realizations that arrived with the delivery were better, and more welcome, than the Amazon order.

This particular FedEx employee has been out quite a bit lately — since Verizon has failed to send me a working phone to access Internet during the past three weeks, despite five attempts — but that’s another story and I don’t want to recount it here and get all angsty again.

While making the delivery we chatted a bit. He asked how I came to live out this far off the beaten path. I thought for a moment and told him that twenty years ago I decided I wanted to live in the middle of the woods in a cabin and write. Until the words left my lips, I didn’t realize that this year marked the two-decade mark.

I told him that it took eight years to find the farm and for the last 12, I’d cleared the spot here in the middle, lived in and discarded a trailer, and finally built the cabin where I live now. I told him I moved in before I had floors and walls and running water because I knew if I tried to live elsewhere and save up the money to make it happen, it never would. He said I was brave and unusual, which is better than saying I’m crazy, but is probably not far removed.

I told him that way back then, it occurred to me that it was crazy to continue working long hours at a job I didn’t like, leaving my kids in daycare, to be able to eventually afford to start living my dream sometime in my 60s or 70s — so I quit the job when I found the farm and moved out here. I told him that I wasn’t writing the “Great American Novel” for publication as I’d intended, but I was living in the woods, in my cabin and writing for a living, and it was good.

He asked me if it was what I’d expected it to be — was it better or worse than the dream? Again, I found myself realizing the truth as I answered…

“When I had ‘the dream’ it was all whispy,” I replied, “like a castle built on clouds, but this is better because it’s real.” He smiled, gave me a curt nod and said he could understand that.

Until today, I often reveled in the fact that I had “arrived” — and promptly forgot that when things weren’t going the way I wanted them to, when frustrations arose, when times were trying — but I had never truly embraced the fact that my reality now is better than I’d imagined they it be… back when it was just my dream.

I don’t have to work all the time now. I have clients to serve, projects to complete, and plenty to keep me busy (I’m always happiest when I have work to do and I doubt that will ever change), but I don’t have to push my way through every day. There are some mornings now, well before my “retirement” age has even arrived, when I get up in the morning and think to myself, “What do I WANT to do today?” and once I settle on an answer, THAT is exactly what I do! It doesn’t happen every day. It doesn’t even happen on a regular basis, but it does happen.

And today, more than yesterday, I realize… That’s a pretty cool place to be, isn’t it? :)

Playing with Blogsy App for Blogging on My iPad

Blogging App for iPadYesterday, I read a few reviews and visited the website for a new blogging app for the iPad. It’s called Blogsy and, until now, I’ve been rather unimpressed with those apps claiming to be blogging apps for the iPad/iPhone platform. (This one is ONLY for the iPad, btw.)

All that changed when I put out my $3 last night on iTunes and downloaded this pretty little thing and started using it today. I’m writing this blog on it now and I must say, it’s making the blog process fun. Believe it!

The Good
There’s lots of real estate for composing – even with the keyboard on in landscape mode! The designers have followed the 80/20 rule beautifully by adding nearly everything a typical blogger would need in neat, easy-to-access and visually uncomplicated tool bars on the top and the right side of the screen. It’s pretty. It really is.

It’s also cheap! The developer seems to be responsive to user comments, problems and suggestions and has already submitted a new version to the App Store (currently awaiting the official nod) to address some of those. In the meantime, the price has been lowered until the new version comes out — so now is a great time to buy if you want to try it for yourself.

I’m quite excited to watch as this little app develops and matures — it may easily become one of the most used apps on my iPad.

The Bad
I wish there was a way to add my own photo repository sites to pull the images over and that those icons could join the ones for Flickr, Picasa, YouTube and Google on the right column.

Yes, there’s a Safari-type button there, so I can get there, but there’s no way to favorite or make an icon for the couple sites I use most, so it’s a long and unnecessarily complicated process. I guess I could “go with the flow” and throw up all the images I think I might need onto my seldom-used Flickr account, or start using Picasa, but I’d rather not. Besides, doing that means I can’t do it all from the iPad, and that’s the real goal here.

I’d also like to be able to pull images directly off my iPad to add in. If there’s a way to do that, I’ve not found it.

It would also be nice to work on drafts that are currently in process on my WordPress self-hosted site, or the ability to pull down and edit published posts on the fly. Right now, this will only create new posts and upload them.

I have heard reports of the loss of posts when attempting to upload to a blog — but have not experienced that one myself. I’m writing this blog on Blogsy now! :) I think it would be great to have an automatic backup on the app to prevent data loss — and to prevent that sinking feeling when you just exit an app without hitting a save button and just hope for the best.

The Ugly
There is no ugly to this app. The layout is intuitive and easy to use. Instructions are complete and easy to follow. It’s like a little microcosm of Blogging 101 — with the power to support those of us who have been at it for many years.

Until recently, I didn’t realize how important the icon is to my enjoyment of an app. Sure, it must function well, do the job and not crash — but having a little bit of pretty eye candy makes me happy and this app has that too. (Now, maybe I like it because I still love the classic tools of the writing trade – typewriters, fountain pens… heck, even Quills!) Or maybe my age and sense of nostalgia just gets the better of me from time to time.

If you are a mobile blogger – this may be the next tool in YOUR toolbox.

The Uh-Oh!
***NOTE/UPDATE: Although I still like the little app, it has frustrated my morning. I probably won’t try to blog on it again until the new, more stable version is released — since as I was finishing up the last paragraph, the thing crashed and I lost everything other than the first sentence. :(

I had to recreate it from memory… on my MacBook. And this was a crash unrelated to the “uploading” one I’ve read about. This one was while I was trying to add a link. Go figure.

5/20/2011 – update – I’ve played with the Blogsy app quite a bit now, and must say that I love it. Nearly all of the issues I noted before have been addressed and it has now become a permanent resident on my first page of my iPad. I love how responsive and helpful the developer is in answering questions and addressing concerns (see the comments below for a sample!) Thank you for making Blogsy a keeper!