Let’s talk UU SEO

Behind the scenes, several Unitarian Universalist bloggers have been discussing how to increase traffic to blog posts that the blogger thinks are useful or important. One UU blogger observed that if you write a post that is some combination of controversial, critical, or ranting, you are more likely to get a lot of hits on that post. But how do you drive traffic to more thoughtful posts that you think are worthy of a wider readership, but which aren’t the kind of traffic you think they deserve? The advice given by several bloggers was to write headlines and titles that are carefully designed to drive appropriate traffic to the blog post.

This is a sound approach to driving traffic to your blog, and I have no intention of following it.

Over the years, I’ve tried this approach a few times, and I’ve written a few blog posts on controversial topics that, judged by my low standards, got a fair amount of traffic. I discovered three things: First, writing controversial blog posts that attract lots of traffic forces me to think about the world in ways that I do not enjoy: you have to start looking for controversies everywhere. Second, once you start getting more than half a dozen comments on controversial blog posts you are going to have to spend time moderating whackos and fending off trolls, activities I find dull and unpleasant. Third, controversial blog posts tend to attract readers who either have an axe to grind or who aren’t interested in nuance, people with whom I have little in common.

So I came up with a different strategy for writing blog posts.

I tend to write carefully-written, well-documented posts designed to have a long shelf life. Such posts might provide information not easily available elsewhere on the Web, e.g., the posts I have done on Black theologian William R. Jones. Or such posts might provide authoritative information on an area where I have some level of expertise, e.g., the post I did on implementing #FergusonSyllabus in Sunday school. Or such posts might provide useful summaries on an obscure topic (note that since Unitarian Universalism is a tiny sect, most UU topics are obscure), e.g., the posts I have done on the theological influence Mary Rotch had on Ralph Waldo Emerson. In SEO (search engine optimization) terms, this is a variant of “long tail search”; my SEO goal is to have lots of authoritative posts with just a few highly specific links going into them.

To put it another way, trying to compete for traffic with Huff Post (or for that matter with Doug Muder and Vicki Weinstein) is a mug’s game, a strategy with a low chance of success. At least, it’s a mug’s game for someone like me, because I’m not that kind of writer.

I’ve spent some time thinking about the kind of writing I am best able to do. My partner, a former freelance writer, talks about being an “information hunter-gatherer,” and I can do some of that. My older sister, a professor of writing and an author, talks about the book by Robert Coles, Doing Documentary Work, and I can do some of what Coles describes. Then too I’m a minister, and every once in a while I’m able to do some writing on spiritual topics.

Once we’ve gone this far, the rest is obvious. Finding out what kind of writer you are means figuring out who your readers are, and what they are interested in reading. Finding out who you are as a writer means learning how to write well for your readers. Depending on who you are as a writer, this could mean learning how to write clickbait headlines, and keyword-rich blog posts. Or if you’re a different kind of writer, this could mean something different. In my case, it means trying to write well-crafted short essays on topics about which I have knowledge. And in your case, it might be something else altogether.

I don’t believe there is one best way to write a blog. I believe what you want to do is know who you are as a writer, know who your readers are, write well-crafted blog posts aimed at your readers, and then find the SEO strategy that best allows you to reach your readers.

Secure video chat

Deborah, another UU minister, told me about VSee, a video chat service with 256-bit encryption. VSee is designed as a “telehealth” app, for use by doctors and other medical professionals; the company claims that it is the first such application that complies with HIPAA.

Clergypersons working in congregations do not have to comply with HIPAA, and certainly HIPAA would not be the right set of standards for congregational work. But maybe we should be thinking more about how to protect the privacy of congregants. Email is far from secure, yet I find myself doing pastoral car via email. I don’t know that VSee is an appropriate product for me to use (I’ll have to experiment with it), but maybe it’s time to research options like this.

Tenth anniversary

On February 22, 2005 — ten years ago today — I published the first post on my blog. If you want, you can read the first post here. I’ve posted a summary of how the blog started elsewhere, so no need to rehearse that history now.

Ten years is a long time in the world of social media. When I started this blog in 2005, blogs were about ten years old, and their popularity was still rising as we migrated away from the command-line interface of the old social networks like Usenet to the amazing world of the Web. In 2005, MySpace was arguably the coolest social network, LiveJournal had just been purchased by Six Apart, and Facebook was limited to students in Ivy League colleges. How things have changed.

We are in a vastly different social media landscape today. A great deal of social media now happens away from the Web, in the social universe of texting and phone apps. Web-based social media has become dominated by for-profit companies which are really in the advertising business, not in the social media business. Blogging itself has become dominated by for-profit publishing companies like the Huffington Post. A great many amateur bloggers have discovered that it’s much easier to put your thoughts out on Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest.

Yet in spite of all the changes in the social media landscape in the last ten years, there still appears to be a place for blogs written by amateurs. Blogging continues to be a fairly interesting publishing platform, one that attracts some fairly interesting writers. With that in mind, what better way to celebrate the tenth anniversary of this blog than by pointing you to some blogs that I continue to read:

Charlie’s Diary, written by SF writer Charles Stross, along with guest bloggers and a host of literate commenters, brings back the glory days of blogging — heck, this blog takes me back to the glory days of Usenet, when intelligence, snark, wit, and seriously geeky knowledge ruled social media. Still more fun than Facebook or Twitter.

• I’ve been reading Hoarded Ordinaries off and on for over a decade. Sometimes the subject matter is trivial (this happens to every periodical; even Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote some real crap for The Rambler); sometimes the writing sounds a little too much like the creative nonfiction I used to hear in writing workshops. But Hoarded Ordinaries remains a fine example of the best of amateur blogging, and I keep going back every few months to check in.

• Scott Wells is still writing about religion at Boy in the Bands, and after more than a decade of reading him I still find it worthwhile to listen to what he has to say. This is one of the few religion blogs that I read regularly. I’ll admit my bias: Scott’s one of the few Universalists on the Web, and sometimes I read his blog just to get my fix of Universalism.

• Another religion blog that I read regularly is Roy King’s Mediterranean Wisdom. Roy’s training as a psychiatrist (and former professor of psychiatry at Stanford) and his training as a minister informs his writing about religion, which makes for some interesting reading. Since Roy is also a Universalist, I’m probably biased in his favor, but I can still recommend his blog.

A final note: It’s thanks to readers like you that amateur blogs remain viable. Thank you for supporting these independent voices!

REA: Teaching and learning in online spaces

In the afternoon pre-conference session of the Religious Education Association 2014 conference, Eileen Daily of Boston Univeristy and Daniella Zsupan-Jerome of Loyla University presented a workshop titled “Teaching and Learning in Online Spaces: An Experiential Engagement with Digital Creativity.”

While online media are new, Daily reminded us that religions have always used mediated forms of communication. “What did Paul do? He wrote letters!” she said. “Email is just another form of letter,” she added. “These are just new names for things we’ve been doing for a long time. There’s a difference of form, but there’s not necessarily a difference of message.”

Daily told us that when she teaches religious education online, she emphasizes nonlinearity. Whereas face-to-face learning environments lend themselves to a linear path through a subject, online environments lend themselves to a nonlinear approach. However, you still have to pay careful attention to course structure; there is a “Skinnerian side of education,” so there’s always a sense in which you have to “keep students in the rat maze” to produce behavioral outcomes. And Daily reminded us that the goal of any religious education is to “integrate religion into people’s messy lives.”

Daily and Zsupan-Jerome then led us in “a mini non-linear learning event that will appear on a curated platform at the end of the session.” As a subject for this experience in non-linear online learning, Daily and Zsupan-Jerome had us investigate the Salt Creek watershed; Salt Creek runs immediately behind the conference hotel. They split us into six groups, each group charged with investigating the environmental challenges facing Salt Creek through different approaches. Thus one group conducted Skype interviews with people who knew about Salt Creek; one group investigated sacred texts on the subject of the environment; another group researched specific environmental challenges facing Salt Creek today; etc.

Continue reading “REA: Teaching and learning in online spaces”

Developing online curriculum

Over the past few years, I’ve slowly been developing UU religious education curriculum that are meant to be published online. This past week, I finally put together a new Web site to publish them: Yet Another UU Curriculum Site.

At present, three curriculum are published on this site: “Beginnings,” an 8-session course for upper elementary grades; “Coming of Age,” a 9 month, 17 session, program for gr. 8-9; and “Greek Myths,” an 8-week course for upper elementary grades that’s still in development. In addition, I’ve included a selection of games that are appropriate for Sunday school classes and youth groups.

Why publish curriculum online?

First and foremost, I wanted to have the complete curriculum available in a format so that a teacher can access it with their smartphone or tablet.

This is good for teachers because all lesson plans and associated resources are easily accessible, and teachers don’t have to worry about leaving their curriculum book or binder at home. Long term, I will convert at least some of the curricula to epub format, and/or to printed books available as print-on-demand copies, so teachers can use whatever format they prefer.

View: Smartphone

Above: The site as it would be seen on a smartphone.

This is also good for parents, because parents can ask which lesson their child did on a given Sunday, and then look up that lesson online. Then they will can go over the material with their child if they want to. Some of the curricula I’m developing have a story associated with each lesson, and long term I’m planning to create storybooks in both epub and affordable print-on-demand print editions.

View: Laptop

Above: The site as it would be seen on a laptop or home computer.

Second, I wanted to have curricula online side-by-side with supporting resources. Thus, one of the first resources I’ve put up on this site are lots of games. That way, if a lesson plan fails, a teacher will have immediate access to back-up activities. Long term, I’m working on an online how-to-teach resource, with tips and techniques for adapting printed lesson plans for your own needs.

Finally, I want to see where this leads me, and I suspect I’ll start thinking differently about curriculum development. With cheap, easily accessible online publishing, it won’t just be teachers who are accessing curricula — parents and even kids will be able to do so as well. I’m going to start allowing people to add comments (which I will carefully curate), and that will enrich the curriculum. Finally, I’m contemplating adding some sort of assessment section to some of the curriculum, by developing fun ways for learners to show what they’ve learned.

This is very much a project that’s in development. I would value your thoughts and comments. To view “Yet Another UU Curriculum Site,” click here.

The year in review: UU social media in 2013

It feels to me as though there was a resurgence of energy and creativity among Unitarian Universalists using social media in 2013. I’m not sure we were always as effective as we could have been, but I saw energy and enthusiasm amongst Unitarian Universalist (UU) social media creators that led to some of our best use of social media ever. Here’s my list of the 2013 UU social media top three — two exemplars of how to use social media and one milestone in the evolution of UU social media:

1. CLF: This year, the best producer of UU social media was, without doubt, the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF). When you go to their Website, delightfully titled “Quest for Meaning,” you’re immediately presented with several ways you can engage with the CLF community: you can share your joy or concern; you can light a virtual chalice; you can click through to one of their blogs; you can register for an online course; you can find out about their online worship services; you can donate money or buy books that will provide them with a small kickback; and more. The front page of their Website lets you know that they really do have an online community — and their Website draws you in and offers you many ways to participate, at multiple levels of commitment. I’m pretty jaded by online engagement these days, but even so simple a thing as lighting their online chalice brought a smile to my face.

I’m even more impressed by CLF’s video offerings, which are easiest to track down on Youtube. You can watch video meditations, you can listen to their religious educator, Lynn Ungar, tell stories, you can hear homilies by their senior minister Meg Riley and others, and you can watch “The VUU,” an online UU talk show. I was particularly impressed by “The VUU”; I was prepared not to like it, I thought there was no way that I’d watch an hour-long video, I half-suspected it would be the usual overly-serious religious liberal talkfest. But it turns out that “The VUU” is funny, entertaining, thoughtful, and definitely worth watching. Ever since I watched the early videoblogs by Steve Garfield and others, I’ve been waiting for some Unitarian Universalist to figure out how to do something fun and creative with online video — and “The VUU” has finally done it; indeed, it exceeds my expectations.

2. UU World’s “Interdependent Web”: When Kenneth Sutton stopped curating “The Interdependent Web,” a weekly list of the most interesting posts from UU blogs, I was a little bit worried; I didn’t think anyone could be as good a curator as Kenneth. But I can say without diminishing Kenneth’s achievements in the least that Heather Christiensen, the new curator of “The Interdependent Web,” is even better. Heather has cast a very wide net, and tracked down new and unusual UU blogs that I otherwise would never have heard about; she has been unafraid to mention posts on controversial subjects (and her editors at UU World have obviously supported her in this); and she has been pretty consistent at finding good and thoughtful writing. Continue reading “The year in review: UU social media in 2013”

The next UU app

I’ve been talking with some people I know, and we’ve been brainstorming about the next UU app for Android and/or Apple iOS. Since some of these folks have experience in software and app development, this is not just a pipe dream. At the moment, we’re talking about really basic stuff, like an app for your congregation that lets you know the sermon topic for the week, then on Sunday provides you with an order of service so you don’t have to kill trees by taking a paper order of service. But I’m seeing this as just a first step.

So here’s my question — what UU app do you really want to see on your smartphone and/or tablet?

Anniversary

Back on February 22, 2005, I wrote the first post on a blog I called “Yet Another Unitarian Universalist Blog.” And here I am, eight years later, still writing.

The online world has changed drastically in those eight years. In 2005, blogging was still cutting edge social media, Facebook was still restricted to users with a .edu email address, and the big social networking site was MySpace. In the first few years of this blog, there were so few UU bloggers that we’d go out of our way to visit one another so we could have face-to-face meetings, and there were even UU blogger picnics.

For a few years, a lot Unitarian Universalists paid a lot of attention to the few Unitarian Universalist blogs. There were only about fifty of us, and we all had a wide audience. I still remember a meeting at General Assembly where members of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Board of Trustees sat a bunch of us bloggers down and asked how they could get their message out on our blogs.

Twitter came along. Youtube took off. Facebook got big, then huge, then ridiculously ginormous. Many of the conversations that were happening on blogs went over to other social media platforms. These days, the best bloggers are typically paid, or they’re professional writers blogging for exposure on commercial or paid sites. The transformation of Chris Walton, perhaps the best UU blogger ever, can be taken as a representative case: he wound up running UU World, the UUA’s official periodical; moved UUWorld into blogging; dropped his long-running personal blog “Philocrites”; and now he posts his personal thoughts on Facebook.

While the social media field has grown ever larger, ever more dominated by bigger and bigger players, I have kept on with this tiny little blog, with its tiny readership of ten thousand unique visitors a month (the Huffington Post gets more than three times that many unique visitors in one hour), many of which appear to be meaningless visits from questionable IP addresses in Russia and China. While more and more people turn to social media to carry on their online conversations, I stick with the outdated blogging format.

But then, I started my publishing career back in the 1980s, writing a fanzine that had a circulation of less than twenty people. I’m still a zine writer who wound up writing a religion blog by mistake. A zine writer is always looking for readers beyond his or her narrow social circle, which means Facebook will always feel restrictive. A zine writer is, by definition, long-winded, which means that Twitter will never offer enough space. A zine writer feels fondness towards outmoded publishing techniques, like cut-and-paste photocopying and hectographs, and by contrast feels little fondness for the newest and shiniest social media platform.

Finally, a zine writer publishes because he or she is expecting readers to write back. And you, dear readers, do write back — you write comments, you send email, sometimes you send me notes and books and dogtags and old magazines with interesting articles. Blogger and author John Scalzi sneers at tiny blogs like this (he really does; I went to a presentation he gave and heard him do so). Whatever. You, the readers, make this all worth while. Thank you for eight great years.

Your Web site on different devices

Carol pointed me to the Screenfly tools on QuirkTools, which allows you to preview any Web site as it appears on various devices, including Android and Apple smartphones and tablets, desktop computers, and televisions. To try this out, try comparing our congregation’s main Web site with our religious education blog; I just updated our congregation’s religious education blog with a “mobile-first” responsive Web design, while the main Web site does not have a responsive design, and there’s a big difference in the way each appears on phones and tablets.

(1) First, open the Screenfly tool in a new window by clicking here.

(2) Next, enter the following URL, and try viewing it as desktop, mobile, tablet, and television:
http://paloaltocre.wordpress.com

(3) Now enter the following URL, and notice how it responds differently to a desktop, mobile, tablet, and television, displaying legibly (and differently) on each):

Home

Isn’t QuirkTools’s Screenfly great fun?

UU kids and politics

I’m often impressed by Unitarian Universalist kids. They have this tendency to take our values seriously, and actually try to live out our values.

Here’s a video about the presidential election, from a second grader whose family is part of our church here in Palo Alto (her family gave me permission to share this on my blog). Whether or not you share her political opinions, she is articulate, personable, and fun — able to express her views politely and respectfully — just the way we want our UU kids to be. Nor is it surprising that a UU kid would get involved in politics at a young age — after all, we do encourage our kids to live out their values in the real world.