The very best time to visit the Alhambra is midnight. 

The tourist hordes have left, the sun has set, and the palace is painted with delicate brushstrokes of light.  During the witching hour everything takes on a more mysterious quality, and if you find the right quiet corner, you can take a mental journey through the centuries and listen to the stories that those intricate tiled walls have to tell.

The Alhambra

Perhaps you will meet some friendly ghosts?  Or you might hear the long lost echoes of the poems carved into almost every surface.  You may come across a charming stray cat who has made the palace his home.  A wise choice indeed. 

Learn from one of the masters:

1. Find a subject you care about

2. Do not ramble, though

3. Keep it simple

4. Have guts to cut

5. Sound like yourself

6. Say what you mean

7. Pity the readers

A couple days ago Abha Malpani from the Written Road posted about online publishing and how it is affecting the way writers of all stripes compose their pieces, whether they are bloggers or journalists or something in between.  She linked this article from Skelliewag – and while I don’t disagree with everything (people do tend to read web content differently than magazines or books), I do take issue with the idea that just because it is web content, “good” writing isn’t necessary. 

Bad writing is bad writing, whether you are reading it on a screen or on dead trees.

Skellie’s main point is that people reading blogs are looking first and foremost for interesting ideas, and if the bloggers behind these ideas happen to be skilled writers as well, so much the better.  In addition, she does correctly point out that people reading online usually scan articles quickly instead of carefully digesting every word, which is probably true – but people also do this with newspapers, magazines, and books.  Scannable content is not limited to the web. 

In addition, Skellie points out that many of the popular bloggers haven’t studied writing or received any real training – but then again, there are plenty of popular authors who didn’t take the traditional route either (however, they do have the advantage of editors to refine and develop their work, unlike most bloggers). 

In some ways, I think Skellie is indeed correct – news blogs, gadget blogs, and other image/fact heavy bloggers don’t need to be amazing writers, but they do need to be capable of expressing themselves clearly.  After all, spelling errors, grammatical mishaps, and poor word choices can overshadow even the best ideas. 

On the other hand, a skilled writer can be much more engaging and memorable, and therefore attract a bigger audience.  Since there is an incredible number of blogs (at the moment, 112.8 million according to Technorati), why would a blogger or a writer – and the line between the two gets blurrier every day – ever settle for simply good enough?

Another important point was made by many of the commenters on the original article – you never know who is reading your blog, and what opportunities they might offer you in the future.  You definitely don’t want anyone to click away because your blog is riddled with grammatical and spelling errors, so for the love of Strunk and White, hit spellcheck before you post. 

Publishing a sloppy article is similar to showing up with unkempt hair and wrinkled clothes for a first date or job interview – although you might be the most awesome, talented, and caring person in the world, appearances matter a lot, especially when it comes to first impressions. 

That said, plenty of bloggers do break traditional grammar rules and this can be part of a distinctive voice – but you have to know the rules before you can break them effectively.  There is a huge difference between using slang or insider terminology because it works for your audience/concepts and forgetting to edit before you hit post.  And of course, lists and bullet points and short snappy paragraphs are more popular on the web than in books or magazines, and for good reason – they are simple and usually contain scannable nuggets of information.  They are effective.

In the end, however, the goal of writing is communication – and I believe Skellie’s point is that traditional good writing isn’t a requirement for blogging, because it is a different kind of communication.  He is correct in that you don’t have to be Hemingway (who also valued brevity and clear, concise writing) to be a popular blogger with tons of subscribers – but then again, McDonald’s has served billions too, and very few people would call their food amazing or remarkable – more like “easily accessible” or “good enough”. 

Shop For The Snow Leopards

January 29, 2008

Every once in a while I come across a thoroughly excellent site, and the Snow Leopard Trust definitely falls into that category – it combines exotic ornaments and textiles, charity, and one of my favorite things, big cats.  Besides having tons of information about these majestic creatures, you can shop for handmade goods from the felines’ homelands of Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and more.  It’s a great way to add a touch of the exotic to your home; of course, you can also adopt a snow leopard or two as well.

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How can you say no to this adorable face?

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Many, many web 2.0-type companies and startups seem to be depending on the support of advertisers as a major source of revenue.*  While users get their platforms, apps, and services for free, the site is peppered with ads that the vast majority of people ignore.  As a whole, we the people of the web have gotten awfully good at tuning out ads. 

Seth Godin brought up Hotmail today (which may be out of vogue in Silicon Valley, but here in the heartland it is alive and well, surprisingly enough.  Of course, there are also still paying AOL subscribers here too.  But I digress.) when discussing Facebook’s advertising problem – basically, no matter how focused the ad campaigns are, Facebook’s users are there for the people, not the stuff.  They haven’t given permission to be marketed too yet.  This problem applies to many sites and social networks that are planning to sell ads.

There is an industry where advertisers not only have permission, people look forward to their next campaign – fashion, especially high end, big name fashion.  In what other form of media are the ads considered part of the reason to buy something as a opposed to a negative adds nothing to the overall value?  For the unfamiliar – many people buy the great big September and March issues of Vogue, Elle, and the like in order to check out all the new ad campaigns from the major labels. 

Not only have these individuals given the marketers permission, they are paying for the priviledge.  In fact, some of these ads were so controversial and provocative, they’ve earned their place in the pantheon of iconic cultural imagery (as you might guess, some of the images at this link are not safe for work due to the artistic sort of nudity). 

Like many other forms of marketing, fashion companies are trying to sell a fantasy.  However, how many of them manage to do it so well?  Ads from Yves St. Laurent, Chanel, Missoni, etc. are just as artistic as an editorial in many cases.  Hell, whole websites and discussion boards are devoted to them, they are shot by some of the world’s premiere photographers and feature top models and actresses.

To bring it back to the web, how can companies and websites use advertising or marketing in a way that it adds value and encourages discussion instead of simply sitting off to the side and cluttering up the screen?  Since advertising is pretty much a given in our lives, both on and offline, how can we make it better?  And of course, how can marketers/advertisers participate in the conversation in a positive way, a way that improves both the “stuff” being sold and the public’s understanding of it?

I don’t think that ads always have to be the enemy or a necessary evil – but they need to improve.  Perhaps other industries should take a glossy page from the fashion world’s book – ads don’t need to be overt or blaring as long as they tell a unique story and make the viewer want to know more; and instead of hanging out on the fringes of the conversation waiting for someone to notice, maybe it’s time to join it.

*I’m not going to get into to the fact that there can’t possibly be enough ad dollars to support all the forms of media that currently depend on it – that’s a subject for another post.

Are you familiar with search engine fatigue?  When you type search terms into google/yahoo/ask.com/insert engine of your here, you are generally seeking one particular item, right?  There is no need for thousands of pages of results, most of the time – or even more than a page or two, really.

You might have seen the report from Autobytel about how 7 out of 10 people are suffering from search engine fatigue.  Granted, this is not exactly some horrible, painful problem or anything, but there are a few websites that have stepped up with personalized searches, or they offer search results created by humans, not algorithms.  I’ve previously written about 3Luxe (and so did social media blog Mashable), and you might be familiar with Jason Calcanis’s Mahalo, which aims to create results pages for the top 10% search queries.  Of course, the survey was conducted by the same company that owns and operates a new car website, MyRide.com.

While they might not work for every query (for instance, if you’re researching a topic you probably do want tons of results for your queries), I can see the concepts of personalized or human-driven search engines working really well for retail sector of the web.  After all, not all of us have the time or even want wade to thousands of reviews for most products.  Of course, these engines can’t be gamed with SEO or spammers either, which is appealing (the glut of paid listings was also deemed part of the problem in the survey). 

Other areas might benefit significantly too – Mahalo has a “how-to” section, and websites like About.com and eHow.com also qualify – they have human-written answers to your questions and overviews of topics.  Wikipedia fits in a way, as well, although it is more of a solution for search engine fatigue than a response aimed at the problem.  I could see something travel-related (maybe it’s out there?  Let me know in the comments) working out as well.  Of course, sites like these work best when you have a specific question – broader topics will probably still be the domain of google and the like.

One more note – on Greg Linden’s blog (he’s the founder of Findory, a company that helps people sift through the web and personalize their news), a commenter named Jeremy responded to a search engine fatigue post (“Searchers say, please read my mind“) with “it might be better to see two clusters: Non-commercial sites and commercial sites. Or three clusters: Commercial sites, non-commercial product review sites, and non-commercial “product in action” sites.  Then, if your initial search returned a ranked list of these three clusters, you could pick which one was most relevant to you in that moment.”  That could be an interesting way to combat search engine fatigue as well.

Validation…

October 10, 2007

I’m happy to see that Brian Clark, the Copyblogger (currently #42 in the Technorati Top 100 at the time of posting) has posted about something that I’ve been saying for a while – search engines are not the best source of traffic, especially not valuable or sticky traffic.

And I quote:

“Believe it or not, my strategy since the beginning of Copyblogger has been to pretty much forget search engines exist. Don’t get me wrong… I’m not doing anything to annoy them, and I certainly don’t turn away visitors from search engines. I just don’t depend on them for traffic.

While people work hard to attract links to rank better in search engines, you’ve got to realize that some of the highest quality traffic comes directly from the links. Pretend like search engines are not even a traffic option, and instead focus on repeat traffic and referral sources that no one can take away.”

I can’t remember where I first read “live by Google, die by Google” but it makes sense.  Depending on search engine algorithms that you have no control over doesn’t seem the best way to build a successful site, especially that if that is your only strategy.  However, it is significantly harder to write or something interesting/compelling/linkworthy than to play the SEO game in many cases, so I can see why people go for the quick and dirty traffic from the search engines.

See this post for more of my thoughts on the subject (and tons of interesting links). 

StyleFeeder Gets Funded

October 8, 2007

Clearly I am not the only one who likes the social shopping site StyleFeeder – they’ve just raised $1 million in funding from two different venture capital firms

I’m excited to see what they’ll do with it.

On a related note, there is an interesting post on recommendation engines (search engines that help you find things you like, from interesting content to books to gadgets) on Read Write Web Today.