25 years of blogging marathon: and one of the very first blogs keeps running!

Blogging has completed 25 years, and what a jouney it has been!

It was 1993 when updation of diaries on the web started and in the following year, Justin Hall and Dave Winer started blogging regularly. 

Blogging gave the common man <no gender bias intended> a medium that he could use to express himself to the world, without the need of an intermediary (book publisher, newspaper/ magazine editor, television show producer...). 

It was in October 1994 that one of the first blogger, Dave Winer started his blog, Scripting News. It finds an honorable mention in The Manual of Blogging (screen shot of Amazon ebook shown below). 

Scripting News blog

Dave has been updating Scripting News almost daily, though with some gaps when he does not have access to the net. In his post celebrating 25 years of non-stop blogging, he writes:
A lot of other things happened while this blog was running. Needless to say there were no blogs when it started. There was only email, no instant messaging. No RSS or podcasting, no Twitter, Facebook, Google. Amazon and Netscape were less than a year old. Microsoft tried to take over the web and failed. Steve Jobs came back to Apple and brought us the iPhone. And much more.
In fact, when blogging was at its peak (in the last 2-3 years of the last millennium and first years of the current one), media pundits had even predicted that blogging would make mainstream press irrelevant.

But then came social networking and its other ruinous sisters. Serious discussion and even curation of long-form personal musings gave way to likes, votes, shares, pins, 140-character posts, quick comments and followers. The sober and sane voices on blogs seem to have submerged in this cacophony of words, images and numbers - and now videos.

But blogging has not stopped. While a large number of old blogs perish, an equal number of new blogs open. According to one estimate, there are more than a billion blogs on the www, written in different languages. Many surveys and studies have found that blogs are taken as much more credible sources of information and they provide an important medium of expression.

Restaurants and hotels to sue food bloggers for criticism: you read it right!

A Pune-based union of Indian hospitality industry, NUHII, says, it will certify food bloggers and take legal action against bloggers for negative reviews.

Representatives of the union held a meeting earlier this month and decided to start certifying food bloggers. A rep said, there are about 500 food bloggers in Pune itself and only 25% of them are genuine. In the eyes of hotel and restaurant owners who are NUHII members, common reviewers who are not food experts or chefs post critical reviews without the required knowledge of the subject and thus hurt their image. Some reviewers, they say, blackmail them too.

The union also seems to be cut up with quick reviews on social media and aggregation sites, where users tend to make comments based on their one-off bad experience and ignore making comments when they are satisfied.

One of the biggest aggregator, Zomato, some years back put formulas in place to filter and hide what it perceived as biased comments by users. In its blog post, Zomato said that since bias comes through not only deliberate criticism but also paid reviews, the platform would keep upgrading its systems to beat bias.

food blogger, hotel reviews

The other side of the coin

I must have browsed hundreds of food bloggers, including Indian, for my blogging research. I find that mainstream food bloggers are usually passionate about cooking, recipes, nutrition etc. They need to be taken separately from the casual ones on social media platform, spammers, users and commenters. 

Blogging has its own ills, and a few bloggers (and social media influencers) might be using their big social presence and following to ask for money or freebies and even to blackmail hoteliers and restaurateurs. But most others have been doing blogging with commitment and fairplay. Their criticism may not be palatable to the hotel and restaurant owners but they must learn to swallow it.

There are also these questions: Who authorizes one of the many industry bodies to register bloggers? Will registration of publishers by an industry body not be seen as a ploy to stop criticism? What if a registered blogger decides to write a highly critical review? Who defines what is genuine and reasonable criticism, and what is defamation?

I think, bloggers as a group, and also commenters and non-blogging reviewers, have an upper hand here. An industry body cannot act to suppress criticism. However, if someone deliberately defames or blackmails a firm, that firm has all the legal right to sue the blogger; the industry body would in that case be in its right to support the firm. 

How google search works

Ever wondered, how Google search works? If you are not a techie, you will discover many secrets of how you get '2.5 million search results in 0.35 seconds' on Google. 

Google does not search the web real-time!

When we type a search query on the Google search box, it comes out with thousands of search results. What people generally think is that Google sends its tools to search the entire www and the tools come out with the best results - like the Aladdin genie. No, it does not search the web like that.

What Google does is that (i) its search bots keep crawiling the www to find useful stuff, (ii) it maintains a huge index of such stuff that its bots find as good, and (iii) it uses as set of complex formulas to match your query with the stuff in its index.

What type of content does Google consider good for search?

In Google's consideration, the quality of content comes on top when indexing web pages and other web entities. There are hundreds of quality parameters on which Google evaluates a webpage. These include:

  • Originality of content
  • Thoroughness of content
  • Usefulness of content
  • How much the webpage has been linked from autoritative websites
  • Social media signals about the content
  • Lack of grammatical and language errors
  • Lack of unethical optimization (=artificial jacking up) done on the webpage/ website

Google assigns points/ marks to each such parameter and uses a series of very complicated formulas (=algorithms) to give a combined ranking to the webpage. It is reported that there are many parameters that relate to the entire website and many more that relate to individual entities (webpages, files, images, etc). Webpages and websites with low ranking are not kept in the index and when a website's/ page's quality deteriorates, that is taken out of the index. A webpage with high ranking is likely to come high on search results when someone searches Google.

Fresh content scores over old one.

Google likes freshness of content. So, webpages  that update regularly are more likely to be served than the ones that have not been updated for long. Blogs score a big point here. 

Google also has special freshness algorithms to find if the searcher is seeking up-to-date information or an evergreen one. When a search query has keywords such as 'latest', 'updates', 'score' etc, Google tries to show up content that gives fresh information on a topic/ event.
However, evergreen content that does not change over time (e.g 'the planetary system') has its own value for Google, if it is written well. While updating content has low shelf life, evergreen high-quality content is searched for and shared again and again, and this sends positive signals to Google.

Relevance is so so important for search.

In serving results, Google checks meaningful expressions (=keywords) in the query and also the intention of search. 

If you search for 'power solutions', Google will try to find whether you are searching for an electricity solution near you, an article on electric power issues and their solutions, a liquid solution with good strengh of cleaning etc, ways to deal with political power, or something else. 
Once Google makes sense of what the search is about, it looks into its index and tries to serve results that best match the query. Again, there are complicated algorithms that are used for matching search queries with entries in the index.

search on Google

Search engines have become smarter over time.

Initial search engines were 'dumb'; they just looked at the search query and matched it with entries in their indexes. Smart webmasters made fool of them by stuffing keywords into their webpages and getting useless webpages on top of search pages. Then Google and others started punishing such artificially jacked up content. They also built language models to better uderstand how different phrases with the same word mean different things with change of context or the way the query is made. Later, search engines started using machine learning for better understanding intent behind a search. Now they serve search results on the basis of many factors other than direct relevance, e.g. search settings, searcher's location, what other searches were recently made on the same device, and what app has the searcher been using at that time.

Signals of relevance, and forced relevance

Search engines have learnt that context of a search keyword tells a lot about the search intent. For example, 'How to fix a faulty faucet' tells exactly what the searcher wants to know. So, instead of serving academic or engineering articles on faucets, Google will try to serve articles with advice on fixing a faulty faucet. It might also give links to faucet repair services near you.

As mentioned above, the freshness algorithm smells if the query is for updates. If you want to know 'Cicago weather', it will give latest weather updates on Cicago on top of search page; if you query 'dollar-rupee rate', it will give the latest exchange rate between these currencies. Maybe, it will also give links to forex dealers near you. 

Coming to the earlier example again. Instead of just indexing entries for 'faucets', Google has a way to index webpages that contain keywords with more than one word. In this case, Google will look for index entries in which  'repair' and 'faucet' come together in a meaningful sequence. So, Google is likely to serve search results with expressions such as the following: how to repair a faucet, what to do when a faucet leaks, ways of fixing faucets, how to fix taps so that they do not leak. Such long expressions that together identify a relevant indexed entry are called long tail keywords and are very helpful to Google in knowing the context of the query.

Google goes a step forward. It also looks for other items on webpages that tell whether a webpage is relevant to the search query. Taking an example from Google itself, if you search for 'dog', it will not serve a webpage with 'dog' written in it a hundred times. In addition to finding whether the webpage really has useful information on dogs (e.g. dog foods, breeds, diseases, pet care), it will also see whether it has photos, videos and links pertaining to dogs.

Search engine optimization or SEO

All webmasters know about search engine optimization. SEO includes measures that are taken on the websites and specific webpages so that they come up on search results. 

Search engines welcome ethical SEO - which guides search engines about content and relevance of webpages, but they hate black-hat SEO - which tries to fool search engines into believing that a poor quality webpage is of very high quality and relevance. Filtering out such bad, spammy, webpages is one reason search engines keep changing their algorithms very regularly. Google has reported making as many as 3234 improvements in its search within the last one year (i.e. 2018). 

Google and othe major search engines do not serve results just on the strength of quality and relevance. They give value to SEO and therefore search-optimized content is likely to come up even if it may not be the best and most relevant. 

The changing face of queries and search results

More and more searches are now made on mobile devices. This has posed new challenges and opportunities before search engines. Mobile phones have made Google available all the time and everywhere. New developments in localization etc have also made it easy for users to search everything on the go. Earlier, when we did not know details about something or someone, we looked for it in Google on our desktops. Now we go to Google when we plan a trip or look for a restaurant nearby. The results for such queries have to be exact, instant and with useful links.

Another major change that the search engines are seeing is 'voice search'. More and more people are using voice for search, especially on the move or those not comfortable in typing fast. Mind works differently when one types a query and when one speaks it into the microphone. There also are issues relating to pronunciation and noise. Search engines, thus, have to be even smarter in getting the query and its intent right.

Playing with results

Search engines need huge resources. So, they must earn while giving the results freeThey serve paid results before organic (= naturally occurring) search results. They also seem to give preference to market-friendly entries over knowledge articles. On sidebar (on wide devices) and top and bottom (especially on smaller devices), they stuff advertisements. They collect your browsing data, ostensibly to refine search but also with the intent to serve you targeted ads. Thee are many other ways, search engines play with results; sometimes to help the searcher and sometimes for commercial reasons. Can you really blame them when you are getting so much information and convenience for free?

That's all for now. 

You would find the following SEO related articles useful, especially if you are a blogger or webmaster:

Fundamentals of search engine optimization: What? Why? How?

5 simple SEO actions that give big results

Best Search Engine Optimization strategy is simple and ethical

Fundamentals of search engine optimization: What? Why? How?

This is a knowledge base article. It would answer your questions on search engine optimization (SEO) and  supplement other SEO posts on this website.

In the area of search engine optimization, you will find the same set of tips, with one less here and one more there, on most expert websites (and thousands of websites that copy-paste them). I would advise that you go through the present post in full before you look for actual tips. Why? Because reading tips does not lead to success unless we know the 'why' and 'how' behind the tips. 

    What actually is SEO and how to improve search engine ranking?

    SEO or search engine optimization is the sum of all the actions you take so that your webpages (or blog posts) appear high on search engines when someone searches on the web for something related to the webpage.

    So, SEO has two important aspects:

    1. Content's relevance is very important.

    Search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo!, DuckDuckGo, etc) must be able to relate your website with the search query. If someone searches for 'yoga', your site will be shown by search engines only if it has content on yoga. 

    Take care that your website/ blog has enough content, and of good quality, on the subject on which you want the site to come up in search pages.

    2. Website's authority is equally important.

    For deciding which website to give a higher position on the search pages, Search engines must rank the websites according to their authority. Authority comes from quality of content and how other authoritative sites talk about this site.

    For getting a high ranking for your website in search engine's index, you must ensure high-quality content and also have links (=backlinks) and recommendations from other good websites, and people should talk favorably about your website, on social media. 

    Thus, search engine optimization or SEO is mostly the actions we take for improving relevance of a website and its authority

    Does search optimization matter, now that most website traffic comes through social media?

    Social media is important for getting traffic to a website, but search remains one of the top sources of traffic. What actually happens is that if the content is relevant and of high value, SEO and social media work in synergy: people share the content on social media, which gives authority signals to search engines, website starts coming high on search pages, and the virtuous cycle moves on and on.

    Search engine optimization remains very important, and its importance has only increased over the years - because now people do not remember URLs or ask others for references; they just type their search query on Google and then click on search results.

    Since search engines as well as searchers have become smarter, many of old-type SEO techniques do not work well now. In fact, if we apply some of these techniques in 2019, it hurts the websites. So, what is important is that we apply SEO techniques that are natural and keep in mind searchers more than search engines.

    We hear of frequent Google algorithm updates. What are the latest developments in this field?

    What new developments the search engines, especially Google, carry out is anybody's guess unless they themselves announce a major update. However, there are some companies that spend hours in analyzing search data of different websites and then deciphering what Google might have secretly done. Based on both these, these are the updates as of September 2019:
    • Google keeps updating its algorithms (=formulae) now and then. Such small changes can sometimes be done on daily basis! In a post in July, Google shared that in the preceding one year, it had made 'more than 3200 small changes to its search systems'. 
    • Once in a while, Google comes with 'broadcore' algo updates, which are important and may upset a website's search rankingGoogle's latest core algorithm change seems to have occurred in June. In June, Google also did a change relating to how multiple listings come up in search; in September, it made a change relating to how search results show 'rich snippets'.
    • Google advises that website owners need not worry if their search volume suddenly goes down due to algorithm updates, unless the webmaster himself has taken undesirable SEO actions. Yet, many sites lose traffic badly when major updates take place. 
    • It is believed that other search engines follow Google and carry out their own algorithm changes now and then. 
    • Search engines now use machine learning and other artificial intelligence techniques for finding the exact intent of a search query (e.g whether it is for data, finding location, buying, comparing or something else) and serving the most relevant results. 
    • Mobile search has gained priority. Google now tags its indexed pages also for mobile so that pages with mobile optimization are served when somebody searches on his mobile phone.
    • Video and image are getting importance as web content, and search engines are finding ways to rank them high. Google has started showing videos on top of search pages.
    • Search pages are now full of content that is not organic or naturally obtained. Advertisements or paid search results often come on top of search pages, and thus even the top organic search results come below paid content.

    Do unethical, black-hat SEO techniques work?

    Frankly, they work. But only some of them work and they work for a short time. They badly harm the website in the long run.

    Please remember that all SEO is not natural; some of it is technical and most of it is forced. But that does not make it unethical. Good SEO is like advertising your website and its webpages to search engines. Problem comes when people take undesirable actions, e.g. fooling search engines into believing that a poor quality content is of very high quality.
    Such actions are called 'black-hat' SEO. 

    Google is known to slap penalties on websites when it finds them using black-hat techniques of SEO. It is reported that many SEO guys promise quick rise in search rankings through such techniques. One should not fall prey to their allurements. Even Google has itself said that attempts to instantly raise search ranking may lead one into trouble.  

    Should I go for an SEO service? Will it quickly multiply my search traffic? 

    Part of this question has been answered in the previous reply: be wary when choosing someone who calls himself an 'SEO expert'. There are numerous fake SEO experts all around. In fact the Australian ombudsman on small businesses has recently called SEO 'a minefield of dodgy practitioners' and cautioned businesses against hiring SEO experts mindlessly.

    When you do not know  the tricks of the trade, or you find some actions too technical and confusing, or you fear that a small wrong step might hurt your website, you can sure think of hiring an SEO expert. If you run the website for earning purposes and need a stream of traffic, the need is much more than when you run a personal/ hobby blog.

    If you have time and inclination to learn, you can learn SEO fundamentals from the web or take an online course. You can also make use of free and paid tools, but do not get swayed by their jargon and the enormous data they generate.

    What top SEO strategy would you suggest to a blogger who is not too tech-savvy?

    All major search engines advise web publishers to focus on quality of content and updating the content regularly. At the same time, at least some SEO techniques tactics is essential because in the enormous crowd of websites, a website cannot come on top only on the strength of quality - it must apply some SEO techniques to show to the search engines that it is a website worth being shown on top of search results.

    In fact, Google and Bing themselves suggest some technical actions that website owners should not ignore, e.g. relevant URL, title and description; proper site structure; use of ALT attribute with images; linking with authoritative references; proper use of keywords; and so on.  

    However, if you feel that you need a regular stream of search traffic and you are not too tech-savvy, you can go for an SEO expert.  As mentioned above, be careful when choosing one.

    Why is my blog not coming high in Google search results? 

    Many bloggers get frustrated when they find that their blog is not coming high in Google search results despite all their SEO efforts. If you are one of them, you might be wrongly taking one or the other SEO action. For example, your content might be of poor quality, or it may be good but not useful. Your content may be of top quality but not relevant to what people are looking for. 

    Have you optimized your individual posts for visitors as well as search engines? For example: Have you given the post a great, interesting, heading and sub-divided text into sections with sub-headings? Have you added keywords in the post's URL, introduction, body, search description etc? Have you put alt attribute to images? Have you added a compelling description to the post? If you are on Wordpress, have you installed a SEO plugin (e.g. Yoast) and optimized the post according to its suggestions?

    If your blog and posts do not come high in search pages in spite of all your efforts, look closely at the competition. You might be optimizing your posts for keywords that are highly competitive: what it means is that there may already be other webpages with very high authority and relevance for those keywords. 

    One mistake bloggers and website owners usually make is to try to optimize the website but not individual posts and pages. Google and other search engines show individual pages more than websites when someone makes a search - so individual web pages need to be optimized. Page-level optimization helps greatly in improving relevance (while site-level optimization is more effective in improving authority).

    Also remember that SEO has to be continuous process; it is not done once in five years and then forgotten. You need not - and should not - go overboard with SEO but it always helps to  optimize main posts when publishing them and also re-visit site-wide SEO once every 6-months or so.

    Best SEO techniques are simple but focused.

    How good are Google and Bing webmaster tools, from SEO point of view?  

    Both Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools are good as they give data on which keywords rank high, from where your site gets traffic, technical issues that might be hurting your website's SEO, etc. There are some good inbuilt tools for analytics as well optimization, and they give genuine and practical technical SEO tips. 

    Go for either of the two. Do not get bogged down with technicalities. Just see if your website has some serious issue and if your search graph is progressing positively. Take the actions that they suggest.

    If you are attracted towards SEO tools available on the web, start with free and trial versions of one or two top SEO companies. Only after that should you take a final decision whether to buy one.

    In general, you should not go for such tools, if
    • You are a hobby blogger.
    • You find that these SEO tools are complicated and useless.
    • You do not have much technical expertise and you dislike technology.
    • You already have an SEO expert by your side.
    You can think of buying SEO tools, if
    • You have time for technical actions that SEO tools require.
    • You do not hate doing technical work yourself.
    • You do not want to spend money on hiring an SEO expert but would like SEO strongly implemented on your website.
    • You find the available free SEO tools useful and think that you would have more options in the paid versions.

    How to be a successful blogger? Be discreet, avoid silly actions.

    In the second post in this 2-part series on mistakes that come in the way of success in blogging, let us discuss indiscreet acts that can put the blogger into legal difficulties, embarass him, or make him/ his blog unsafe.

    1. Copying content and pasting it into one's blog

    Most new bloggers think that copying others' content does not matter. But many bloggers have  faced legal action for indiscreetly using others' content.

    Don't copy others’ content, be it text or images or videos. In case you must use others' content, ask permission. 

    On social networks, you are more likely to get away with copy-pasting from other places in the web, but blog is a more permanent space and you must be much more careful. 

    Very old creations, content on 'public domain', CC0 copyright certification and 'fair use' (when a small block of text is used for the purpose of quoting, etc) are some situations in which you can copy-paste content into your blog. 

    Please also remember that attributing the copied content to the source is not enough. That is no legal defence but only a courtesy you showed to the creator of that content.

    [If you are interested in further details about the legal position on copy-pasting others' content into your blog, you can refer to The Manual of Blogging.]

    2. Using untested themes, widgets, plugins and code 

    There are hundreds of free (and paid) themes, plugins, widgets and codes available on the web -  but not all of them are safe. The harm they can do ranges from diverting traffic to stealing data and involving you secretly in malicious/ criminal activities. 

    Therefore, before you put any code into your blog, be sure of its genuineness. For example, if you have a Wordpress blog, apply Wordpress verified plugins; if you have a Blogger blog, use only its own themes or use others' themes after thoroughly checking their code.

    3. Sharing personal information about others

    Unless it serves a special purpose and the information given by you will not in any way harm the person’s reputation or privacy, desist from giving information about a person’s family life, kids, schooling, hobbies etc. If the person is known to you, seek his/ her permission beforehand.

    4. Recommending products without testing them

    You may review  products on the blog, but ethics demands that you declare whether you have any obligation to the company. You should, for the sake of your credibility, if nothing else, not recommend a service [e.g. a course] or product unless you have tested it. Desist from recommending medicines or diets or treatments unless you are qualified to do so. If you are greatly satisfied/ dissatisfied with something [e.g. service of an airline], do share your experience but in most cases it is better to not make too strong value judgements.

    5. Getting personal or indecent when criticising others

    You may have strong views about an idea being propagated by a person or the person himself, but do not make personal comments or criticise him / her on your blog or any other social media account. 

    Feelings are very important in any form of communication, including the digital one. Be careful about sensitivities of different religions, racial groups, ‘weaker sections of the society’, and regions. Do not use expletives and racial expressions though these might look witty. Avoid four-letter words.  

    6. Bragging excessively

    Promotion is fine, but not when it is excessive. A bit of self-aggrandisement is OK, but not too much. 

    Don’t assume a fake identity with fake achievements and expertise. Don’t put an artificially bloated stat-counter on the blog. These might not be illegal, but fakes do not shine for long: there is high probability that your fake persona will be exposed one day soon and then you will lose all your reputation.  

    When you are a new blogger and you indulge in excessive self praise or fake experise, you will expose yourself. If you are an established blogger, your blogging success will come from genuine expertise, not faking. 

    7. Blogging outside legal/ safe zone

    Blogging by children below 13 years is illegal in most countries. 

    Blogging (or any other form of media/ social media communication) on certain topics is prohibited by governments due to security reasons. In some countries, too personal criticism is taken as libel, and sharp criticism of the state religion is seen as spread of hatred. In most places, religious and national icons are required to be shown due respect, and their inappropriate depiction is a criminal offence. So, be careful.

    Most nations have enacted laws relating to information technology. However, their implementation is usually very faulty, and authorities are known to misuse them - many times in their zeal or ignorance. That is another reason why one should be careful when being unreasonably critical <and without proof> about a person, organization or rulers. One should also avoid intemperate language that is prone to misinterpretation. 

    Many bloggers have faced persecution and some have lost their lives taking on criminals through their blogs or other social media accounts. Be conscious of dangers and take adequate precautions if you venture into this area.

    Just to recap, I am leaving you with this small infographic: 

    blogging: success without silly mistakes
    Click here for the first part of the series, For success in blogging, first correct mistakes