A Writer at WordCamp Baltimore

This blog and thousands of others (or more) uses WordPress, picked mostly because I knew it a bit from a blog (and hosting company) I like, Laughing Squid, which used it. It is open source, and had that “do it yourself” feel of the early web (pitching their “5 second install”), and I was able to put up a little site for an inn keeper friend of mine in about a weekend a few years back. (I later moved it to wordpress.com and it’s still up, if looking its age a bit.)

In the intervening years, WordPress has grown up into more than a blogging tool, providing a platform for a lot of web publishing and building a large developer (and designer and user) community. It has become an ecosystem, perhaps not to the level of Linux (the open source operating system that is used on many web servers), but it is now providing platform infrastructure for between 18 and 20% of the Web.

That is among the tidbits I gleaned at WordCamp Baltimore, a meeting for WordPress types last weekend at the University of Baltimore. For $20 and a train ride up and back it was worth it to see both who attended and the texture of the presentations. It was, in the way of many a tech conference, pleasantly shaggy when it came to organization. No sign on the conference building itself, and confusing ones inside, which meant I ended up in sessions I didn’t intend to attend. But a certain amount of conference chaos means both serendipity and that you have to talk to people to find out where things are, not a bad thing.

Some random notes from the sessions I attended: Russell Heimlich from Pew talked about caching. (Would that I had enough readers to worry about caching or even moving off wordpress.com), but did speak to WordPress’ ability to scale for big sites.

A lawyer turned WordPress entrepreneur Byron Warnken, who has done several successful digital projects relating to law, did a session on content marketing. This was, understandably, focused on commercial uses of WP, but had some intriguing tidbits even for somebody like me who has made his career mostly in not-for-profits. First, “content marketing” pre-dates the web. Byron’s example was “The Furrow,” a magazine from the John Deere tractor company, which gives “relevant content to customers” –that is, content marketing. Wikipedia dates its founding to 1895 and notes a million plus subscribers. Wikipedia lists the Michelin Guide as another preweb example of content marketing, & I assume that beloved book of my youth, The Guinness Book of World Records, would qualify as well.

This was eye-opening for me as previously I saw the whole content marketing idea as separate from “real content” — that is, not influenced mostly by the desire to sell you something, therefore not objective. That still seems broadly true, but it gets usefully blurry around the edges, at least got me to wonder about what content the various companies and non-profits I am involved with can offer as legitimately helpful and engaging (versus what is to sell, I suppose). Byron was engaging and provocative, a very good presenter.

(One provocative (if flaky) observation to fall out of this: what are MOOCs if not Content Marketing on a massive scale? If that logic is correct, when do John Deere, Guide Michelin, and Guinness start their first MOOC? I bet their production values and UX will be an improvement on what is out there from the mighty Coursera and edX. If the Guinness people need an instructional designer for a MOOC-based drinking game, I am at the ready!)

Also worth noting:
Really good session on SEO (that’s search engine optimization, for the two of you who get my blog via parchment scroll in Latin) by principals at WebMechanix, a Columbia, Maryland, company that does optimization for your site (good content marketing gizmo on their home page, as an aside). A lot of familiar stuff (which is like being reminded by the dentist to floss):

  • Meaningful page titles, correct use of title tags.
  • Metadescriptions
  • Meaningful file names for images, alt-tags, good captions
  • Page headings (and logic of the page) even more important than it used to be.

Other: “thou shalls” from them:

  • Overall: Think about your page from a “how easy it is to index this?” perspective. That is, produce sites from an “easy to index” mindset.
  • Religiously share your content on social networks.
  • Think about off and on page SEO (corollary to the one above)
  • Benchmark
  • Use plug-ins for SEO
  • Use the Google site map generator thingie and make xml site maps and give them to the Google beast for ingest.

New to me (although it’s not that I really do any of those ordinary things very diligently) was thinking about various implications of schemas in search (schemas are tagging schemes, sort of like cataloging that makes content more recognizable to search algorithms (and by implication to APIs or for other uses). It reminds me of headings in library catalogs (except that schema go beyond subject to include type etc).

Schema.org has an explanation and a bunch of already existing schema (one is for instance ratings stars). Google has an “author snippet” akin to a schema, which hooks a comment to a profile, and is important in search. Somebody is probably working out schema for education topics and formats now (or if they aren’t they should be). But more on that later.

The notion that giving search engines more about the semantic structure and content of your pages helps in SEO is really thought provoking–in both directions. You start thinking about this structure as a writer and Google as a reader. The guys who were presenting seemed so positive about this–and were also great presenters–that it was easy to forget it’s slightly freaky to think about Google as your number 1 reader, now telling you how to organize your writing.

Arthur’s WordCamp t-shirt selfie.

Given that I (and probably a lot of others) think about SEO as a question of how do I get a site to show up on the first page of Google and then get people there, this idea of Google as a reader, and everything you write as content, eye-opening. Starts with using snippets and schema, and soon morphs to considering your (or your company’s) digital presence as not just your web site or app, but all these bits and piece

s of content out in the web eco-system. It makes me want to have a lie-down and listen to some very calm Palestrina, who, as yet, has not been the subject of a WordCamp session, (although if I ever present at one, I’ll be sure to work him in.)

So overall my first WP was a great experience, and if you are at all in this WordPress cult, check out one in your area, or watch them on WordCamp.TV, which gives you a feel for what they are about. I enjoyed the WordPress for writers out of the Providence WC by Jess Jurick and there are lots more.

 

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