Autumn 2022 in New Mexico

If you know me, you know I tend toward having “deep talks” with everyone. No fluffy small talk for me, if I can help it. It shouldn’t surprise you that I have had a series of deep conversations with my acupuncturist while she’s working on my arthritis pain.

Most recently, we were talking about the current change in seasons, from Summer to Fall, here in northern New Mexico. We talked about how I’m in a Summer to Fall seasonal shift in my work and career right now. We talked about the Chinese medicine behind the seasons, and what the Chinese elements had to say about moving from Summer to Autumn.

We also talked about my river tattoo, which serves as a reminder that I can’t rush the river – that I have to let things unfold naturally in their own time. As much as I want to skip the current step and rush ahead in my life’s path, it’s futile. It’s less stressful, and more powerful, to simply be in the season where I find myself, and savor it.

In Chinese medicine, Autumn is a season associated with the element of Metal, and with the organs and meridians of Lungs and Large Intestine. The main activity is letting go.

The ways that Large Intestines are implicated with releasing that which we do not need, and transforming that which we do, those digestive metaphors are pretty obvious. But I’ve been concentrating my attention instead on the Lung elements of letting go. The exhale.

Exhales as Actual Lung Activities

I don’t remember where I learned that the diaphragm functions by contracting to cause an exhalation. The inhale is created by the empty space created in the lungs, the air rushes in to fill a vacuum. Of course, we can consciously use the diaphragm to inhale without exhaling first, but when we aren’t thinking about it – the exhale is the active part of the breath, not the inhale.

You hear plenty of people – from spiritual leaders to home organizers – talking about letting go of the old to make room for the new, and the new will “rush on in” after you truly release the old…. That’s the breath cycle. That’s precisely how our lungs work.

On top of that, I’ve been working very hard to self-regulate my nervous system. I spend conscious time trying to get out of stress mode, to deactivate the sympathetic nervous system and its Flight-Flight-Freeze-Fawn responses. I spend time thinking about how to activate the parasympathetic nervous system for Rest-and-Digest activities. One of the ways I’ve learned to do this is a biofeedback trick of extending the length of the exhale longer than that of the inhale. If you’re familiar with “box breathing” – think of it as a trapezoid instead of a perfect square. I hold-inhale-hold for the same counts but extend the exhale to be 1-2 counts longer than the other three parts of the breath cycle.

The exhale is the part that switches nervous system responses. The exhale – the part the diaphragm actually controls – is the part of the breath that allows us to relax. We think of this with a heavy sigh or a deep audible sigh. Those are relaxing. I’m just talking about the science behind what we already intuitively know about our bodies.

My Personal Autumn

There is a part of me that has a hard time letting it be an Autumn in my life. As much as I love leaf-peeping, apple cider, and cozy sweaters, I struggle with the slowness of the process of change. That adrenalized go-go-go part of my personality is impatient to start the next adventure. Ready to leap all the way into Spring if she can make the jump (she can’t).

While I am grateful for my inner Type-A Achiever, and I appreciate her ambition and drive, I’m trying to get out of the habit of her way of being. It’s not good for my body or my mental health. I want to slow down. While I know she’s inside me champing with impatience and ready to GET GOING, I know that a lot of her motivation is anxiety. A lot of what fuels her is discomfort with the unknown.

I want my inner Achiever to see that I’m still safe even when I don’t know what’s next. I want her to see that I’m still safe even when I’m not-doing, and not-going. I want her to see that contentment and peace are not scary. She is the reason I learned to breathe with longer exhales. Because the idea of sitting still and watching a fire in the fireplace for hours freaks her out a little bit. For the whole past year, I’ve been consciously trying to transform my Type A personality into a Type B way of being.

By taking a leave of absence from work (which really demands and rewards the Achiever and activates her whether I want it or not), and by slowing down and exhaling this fall, I’m making a major move toward this new way of life. I will still be a high-achieving person because it’s who I intrinsically am in many ways. I just don’t want to do it at the expense of my health and well-being anymore.

I’ve turned in my 2-week notice. I’ve finished my dissertation. It’s time to let go of both the work and achievements, as well as the pieces of my identity associated with being an SEO professional, a manager, a grad student. In the new year, I’ll be a Ph. D. and will have found, created, or discovered a new career path.

My Type A Achiever already wants to set goals for that person, envision her life, and start laying the groundwork for her future success. While that’s a lovely sentiment, it’s impossible. How can I set goals for a person I know nothing about? I do not know who I will be.

Exhales and Autumnal Metaphors

My challenge is to enjoy the last of the wildflowers before the grass turns bronze and golden. My challenge is to allow the leaves to change, to let them glow yellow on the tops of the cottonwoods and aspens before they finally fall to the ground to create compost. My challenge is to be patient with that process inside myself, and just exhale.

My Type A wants to shake the trees and speed up the purge with the hope that Spring will happen earlier. My Achiever – instead of simply enjoying the slim harvest from my little vegetable garden – wants to build a hothouse for the winter. Instead, I am pointing her at finishing projects. Getting out into the world those things that are on the cusp of completion. Exhaling in a different way. Leaves of paper falling onto the desks of editors rather than from the trees.

Autumn – both in reality and in my psyche – is a liminal space. I let myself acknowledge and feel the discomfort of being in a hallway – a place between places. Liminality is inherently uncomfortable. That’s why humans have for millennia created rituals to speed up our passage through that time of life. I have great practice in liminality. Living in a hotel for 2 months in 2021 gave me the skills to traverse that.

Autumn is a slow, natural process of letting go. Exhaling to invite the inhale.

I am hoping that perhaps this practice will help me get ready for Winter. Winter, which in the box-breath is the hold before the inhale. The stillness, composting, transformation, and quiet of the darkness.

How to Write Great Content for SEO

The current wisdom is that we should be writing content for our website’s visitors, and not for search engines. That great content is great, no matter what we do for SEO.  I agree with that – for the most part.

The point that that particular wisdom is missing is that search best practices, by and large, are a checklist of how to write articles that are great for web users.

Search Engine Best Practices Are Meant for Web Users

Where best practices are concerned, they are talking about making content user-friendly, meeting user intent, answering a question completely, and having the design of the site be so intuitive it doesn’t cause friction in the user’s understanding.

The title of this page is wrapped in an “H1” HTML tag, which should be used to signify the title of a page.  The bold subheading above is wrapped in “H2” which says that’s a section break, subheading, and less important than the title.  Were you, the reader, at all confused by this use of H1s and H2s on this page?  Nopity nope. In fact, it made perfect sense to you.

I tend to type in short bursts of sentences and paragraph break more often than I would in fiction or academic prose.  That’s really common for web writing, because we are using a different visual medium, and internet users tend to skim.  In fact, they skim a lot. They will jump to bold words and bullet points!

How People Really Read the Web:

  • Skim titles, things in bold
  • Read the first few sentences of the first paragraph
  • (Or the TL;DR if there is one)
  • Jump to pulled out quotes, photo captions and bulleted lists
  • If they are really interested, they might go back and read the whole thing
  • … but probably not.

Writing your content to get the maximum depth of understanding based upon people’s web skimming tactics is a great way to ensure you’ve covered all of the topics you need to cover.  Oh, and before I forget to mention it, all of these things are also on that list of best practices that your SEO person gave you.

Don’t Be Intimidated By the Word Jumble Game, Please

Google has read everyone’s content, and they have graded all the papers. They know which content includes all of the details necessary to show a complete answer to a user query.  That’s their job.

If we want to compete, then, we need to also use all of the pieces of a complete answer to a question.   Tactically, an SEO whiz can tell what words, phrases and questions should be included in an article by gazing at Search Engine Result pages, the pages of top-ranking competitors, and by brainstorming all of the things we need to know about a topic.  They then hand a list of words to a writer.

This is like the writing exercise in school where you have to fit those words into a page. It’s a creative challenge, not a constraint.  Synonyms are our friends, and we don’t need every one of them jammed on a single page.

What the word jumble does is allows us to ensure – checklist style – that we’ve answered all of the facets of the questions that people have about a topic.

But What about Keywords?

You know how we call it “rolling down the window” in the car, but we’re talking about pushing a little button. Or the meaninglessness of the “save” icon to a kid who has never seen a 3 1/2″ floppy diskette?  What about the phone receiver icon that we press on our smart phones to pick up or “hang up” a call?  Those symbolic anachronisms are about as relevant to modern SEO as the word “keyword”.

Yes, we still research volume of queries to specific topics, and make prioritization and decisions based on that.  But we don’t use a single keyword or phrase to be the end-all-be-all for the questions that web users have about a topic.  Often, you’ll here “topic” or “semantically related” ideas being bandied about in the SEO world way more than keywords.

The problem is that everyone knows that word, and just like the save icon being a relevant symbol for an obsolete technology, the word lives on.

It’s a Tool – Like a Checklist – Not a Formula

An obsolete SEO joke:

An SEO walks into a bar, tavern, pub, drinking establishment …

A more current SEO joke:

Q: How many SEOs does it take to change a lightbulb. 

A: Well,  it depends. 

Search is holistic, fluid, and really specific to each site’s industry, goals and visitors. Much of SEO is about finesse and improvisation.  The problem comes in when people still mistake it as being formulaic.  “Put this keyword here, and here, then synonym 1 goes here.”   I find that people who want to reduce search to always-do and always-don’t sorts of rules end up being frustrated by the job.  It’s always about trade-offs.

So how do you write great content for SEO?

Well, it depends. What are your visitors asking questions about?

Extreme White Hat

In a conversation with another SEO last week, my personal philosophies surrounding SEO were called “Extremely White Hat”. I really couldn’t tell from his tone of voice whether he thought that was a good thing, or a bad thing.  I had a hunch that if it showed results, he wasn’t too averse to a little smudge of dirt on his cowboy hat.

Not me.

Here’s what I said back to him, and what I stand by:

SEO is not a short-term strategy. It’s a long-term strategy.

If you want search engine traffic in the short term, you buy pay-per-click adwords.

If you want to have long-term rankings in the organic search results, you plan on it taking anywhere from six months to a year to do it the right way.  When setting goals for the business, you don’t plan on it reaching its peak potential until two years out.

Then, you don’t take any shortcuts, you don’t do anything that “might be grey” with the hopes that it will sneak past undetected. You do the work. You do it right. You make the website a good place for users and for search engines.  You create good content.

This is how you maintain rankings at the 2.5 year mark when the next Penguin update rolls out. This is how you see your traffic increase after a Panda update. This is how you can sleep well at night about doing your job well.

Yes, my hat is squeaky-clean white. That’s because I want the site I’m working on to do well three years from now as much as I want it to do well today.


Social Media Tip: Play before Work

This bit of advice surfaced in a discussion at an in-house SEO event I attended last weekend, and I think it merits a note. We were talking about companies selecting people to run their Social Media campaigns and what criteria they should use.  My experience at the car dealership immediately sprang to mind. I selected people who already used each platform.

The best Social Media marketers and salesmen are the ones who are already playing in the medium.

Social Media is not really one easy part of the sales / marketing funnel. It’s better used for building brand-love, and for connecting with fans and customers. Someone who has been on Twitter for a few months for their own purposes knows this. Anyone who scrolls past fan page content on their Facebook newsfeed understands that intuitively.  Casual users understand the culture and the social rules.

I’m following a bunch of authors who get this right. Who let their personalities shine through, who chat with other people. Then, sometimes (and only sometimes), they toss information out there about their books.  This is appropriate. And expected.

I’m also following a bunch of authors who get this terribly wrong. They seem to have a lot of followers, and they seem to be retweeted often, but this is deceptive. They are followed by people who follow-back automatically. They are retweeted by people who use their accounts exclusively to push their own books or retweet others.  No one is reading this. No one is responding to it. No one cares.

If you want to schedule a whole bunch of repetitive tweets that will get lost in the noise and never generate a sale. By all means, build your platform that way.

If you want to actually have fans and people who care about you and your success, it’s time to change the game.

My advice: Don’t try to sell anything – yours or anyone else’s anything – for two months.

Log in every day. Send out notes and @-replies every day. But don’t try to sell anything.  Make friends. This will help you learn how the medium works. It will let you see examples of what not to do in your own feed, because they will irritate and distract you.  It will help you intuit how to improve your own interactions.  You’ll learn the culture.

After two months, you can start selling again, but I guarantee that if you try this experiment, you will change your tactics.

Related post: Why I’ve Unfollowed You On Twitter

Data analysis and creative hunchwork

Last week someone asked me what SEO was in a tweet. 140 characters is almost short enough for me to use my cocktail party line: “It’s magic.”   I use this in a tongue in cheek way to avoid really technical conversations with drunk people. I’m quite capable of explaining SEO in simple terms.

( Here’s my real answer:  “My goal is to get targeted traffic to my website. I do that by aiming to get my website to the top of search results for certain keyword phrases. I have to know which phrases I’m going after to bring the right traffic to the site. I have to make sure my content answer the question.  The back end code needs to be honest and clear about the fact that we answer the question better than anyone else online.   It’s a combination of data analysis, understanding web architecture and design, content planning and quality content.”)

But because it was twitter – and that mouthful is no tweet  – I summed it up using the phrase “A combination of data analysis and creative hunchwork”.

Because I work in numbers and data, I understand how important it is to know which numbers are important.  Remember word problems in high school math class? Do you remember the ones that had insufficient information included to get to an answer?  How about the ones that had a whole lot of extra information to confuse you?  That’s what we’re working with in terms of metrics.

The Known

The things that I can measure – the things that I know about my nascent author platform – are all over the place. They are part of both sides of that word-problem coin.

  • How many people follow me on Twitter?
  • What’s my Klout score?
  • How many fans do I have on Facebook?
  • How many people visit my blog?
  • How many people click more pages in my blog?
  • What’s the most popular page on my blog
  • What search terms are people using to find me?
  • How many pinterest (google + etc) followers do I have?
  • What countries do my visitors come from?

Then there are the ways I measure myself and my own activities…..

  • Should I unfollow / follow people on Twitter?
  • How many blog posts have I written?
  • How often do I tweet / post on facebook / pin on pinterest?
  • How many words have I written today?
  • How many contests have I won
  • How many clips do I have
  • How many queries have I sent (rejections have I gotten)

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The list of online and offline metrics available is very, very long.

The Unknown

The next set of metrics are the things I can not measure. The things that float in the great unknown.

  • Why did those three people unfollow me on Twitter today? (WHAT DID I DO? COME BACK!)
  • How many queries will I have to send out to get a Yes?
  • How many drafts?
  • When is my “good enough” really “good enough”?
  • Why does Google show THAT photo of me when I search for my pen name?

This list, I’m afraid, is even longer than the mind-boggling list of the knowns.

Sifting the Wheat from the Chaff

I was inspired to write this post because of Jan O’Hara’s  Sexy Numbers blog post at Writers Unboxed.

Jan is 100% correct. I just want to expand upon and elucidate a few of her final points.

The fact of the matter is that you’re going to measure your progress.  If you are trying to improve or grow, you’re going to be watching numbers somewhere.  Embrace that fact, and then learn how to decode the word problem for only the information you need to solve the problem.

Here are the real tricks of the metrics trade:

  1. What is the real goal of your work? What are you actually seeking to improve?  In SEO terms, my goal is traffic, not search engine rankings. I don’t care if I rank 304, if people are clicking on my links.
  2. Determine which metrics are meaningful in obtaining that goal. Back to SEO: I track visits to see if people are finding my links, I track page views to see if they like the site when they get there. 
  3. Determine which metrics you can safely ignore.  I don’t track my rankings on search results pages, because they are clouded with personalization, diluted with lack of data due to keyword unavailable metrics and secure search, and because they don’t matter.
  4. Are there any measurements that are a means to an end? This is the tricky one, and the one that trips a lot of people up. I actually do look at ranking reports – not to track, but to focus my efforts. If I see that I’m ranking top of page 2 for a term, that term becomes a “quick win” that I can focus on for easy gains.  I don’t track these numbers – I use them.

I don’t target a real number of twitter followers. I target a ratio of who I follow against who’s following me.   This measure indicates a reach that extends beyond the immediate circle of influence. It indicates that I have something to offer.  Until I get there, I need to keep tweaking my strategy. That ratio falls in the fourth category.  In fact, because my platform project is so very new, almost all of my goals fall in the fourth category.

What do you track?  What can you stop caring about?