Travel blogger Mariellen gets blogging award

Canada born travel blogger Mariellen Ward, 59, who writes extensively on India, has received Indian national tourism award for performance in 2017-18. Vice President of India gave away these awards in different categories earlier this month.

She has bagged the award in Best  Foreign Journalist / Travel Writer/ Blogger/ Photographer for India category.

blogger gets tourism award
Mariellen writes extensively on Indian culture. She has explored tourism sites across the country and has indulged in local fashion and traditions.

She has been maintaining her blog BreatheDreamGo passionately for the last ten years. She describes her blog in this intro on the blog:
Breathedreamgo is an award-winning travel site published by Canadian travel writer and India travel expert Mariellen Ward. Breathedreamgo was launched in 2009 and focuses on transformative travel, travel in India, travel in Canada, responsible travel, and solo female travel. Our purpose is to encourage you with inspiration and information to live your travel dreams.

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 does Google search work and what are its lessons for SEO?

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. You will also learn how you can use this knowledge for better search engine optimization of your website/ blog.

Google crawls the entire web but search results come only from index 

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 a set of complex formulas to match your query with the stuff in its index.

What type of content Google considers 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 web page 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 web page/ 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 web page. It is reported that there are many parameters that relate to the entire website and many more that relate to individual entities (web pages, files, images, etc). Web pages 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 web page with high ranking is likely to come high on search results when someone makes a search on Google.

Fresh content gives a strong search signal to Google 

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 that 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. As compared to the content that needs updating, evergreen high-quality content has a very long shelf life; it is searched for and shared again and again, and this sends a positive signal to Google.

How does Google deliver search results in response to different queries?

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: learning for SEO

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 tries to serve articles that advise 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 web pages 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 web pages that tell whether the web page is relevant to the search query. Taking an example from Google itself, if you search for 'dog', it will not serve a web page with 'dog' written in it a hundred times. In addition to finding whether the web page 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.

Can I trick Google to get on top of search results? 

Initial search engines were 'dumb'; they just looked at the search query and matched it with entries in their index. Smart webmasters made fool of them by stuffing keywords into their web pages and getting useless web pages on top of search results. 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 which app the searcher had been using at that time.

Search engine optimization or SEO 

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

Search engines welcome ethical SEO - which guides search engines about content and relevance of web pages, but they hate black-hat SEO - which tries to fool search engines into believing that a poor quality web page is of very high quality and relevance. Filtering out such bad, spammy, web pages 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).

Let me make one thing very clear: good content is no guarantee that Google would show a web page high on its search results. Google and other 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 or on virtual assistants. 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.

Does Google give preference to paid results? 

Search engines need huge resources. So, they must earn while giving the results free. They 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?

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