Web strategy for a city

An essay from 2008, still relevant for local economics, for any city, or any group of people. See notes on the right.


Although the dominant websites change, the strategy on the left is still necessary to develop heft on the Internet. So why is no one doing pushing it? As more people have developed facility with web services, they put a bit more time into it than before, at the grassroots, helping their neighbors. But civic leaders' generally still do not encourage people to do this. They generally resist encouraging the population to engage, person-to-person, with global media.

There's also a huge range of small institutions, such as schools, newspapers, non-profits, venues, etc., who need to maintain their own web presence outside of giant services like Facebook and YouTube. On average, they aren't able to follow a promote-thy-neighbor approach which I advocated on the left.

There are a few reasons:

(1) the superficial technical demands for content on the web change very quickly. This means that it takes significant technical effort to keep old content "looking current", and many institutions, even tiny ones, just don't bother, or can't.

(2) If they don't have time to keep their own old content online, how can they spend the time to maintain old relationships or even links to their old partners?

(3) sometimes old content just seems old, because the context has changed, or because the perspective seems out-dated, or because the original was not presented in a way that "looks good" today.

These are not good reasons to abandon one's community.

But it happens anyway. "The Dream of the Internet" to preserve the past and build upon its lessons, is fast being replaced by a tear-down and replace rapacity more reminiscent of the computer industry than of actual communities.

The "Network Dream", by the way, predates both the Internet and the Web. The vision was for vast, deep communication among communities. It's quite astounding that, over four decades later, the support for community, where we all actually live, is still such a microscopic part of the global network.

The reason this is important: a web strategy is concomitant with any kind of local economic revitalization, especially any kind of positive 'renaissance'-like influence a city might imagine itself having on the rest of the world.

The "web weight" of a city, given any subject, could be a good measure of its influence -- although not necessarily of its quality. A high quality can increase "web weight", but so can money, power, and flash. It's hard to beat the centers of power. But it's not hard to separate from power, increase a city's self-reliance and inventiveness, relocalize the economy and improve the level of discussion. Any city that does, can truly impress people and have an influence. And, yes, this will get them more 'hits'. But only if they take the improvement of life on earth seriously, so that others will be inspired to follow their lead.

I'd like to suggest a city-wide initiative for Eugene, Oregon.

In these tough times, citizens and supporters can give our local economy a boost, through a deeper understanding of how the web works.

If we cooperate to reach our true potential, to contribute our lives and works to the global conversation on the world wide web, we will make Eugene an international heavyweight. If the following strategies are pursued by everyone, with very little individual effort, everyone will benefit.

All for one, and one for all

Web strategies always have an "act locally, think globally" quality. Typically a business, in one location, usually acting alone, tries to get the world's attention. But imagine the effect of all Eugeneans and their institutions acting together, providing better information to, and hosting more relevant online activity for a global audience. It pays to help the world, as we will see in a moment.

Let's start with the basics.

Local and Global Rank

An important measure of a website's success is its rank in Google search results for particular search terms.

As an example, take this blog. If you type downtown Eugene into Google, you get a third of a million results, but this blog is listed as result number two or three. That's pretty good ranking, but that's only a local search term.

Let's look at a local website doing well on an international scale. When you type Tango into Google, as of this writing [in 2008], you get 47 million web pages. Number 41, out of 47 million, is The Tango Center in downtown Eugene. This high international ranking helps the Tango Center to survive, which in turn helps the local economy. Think of it like this: we're the 41st most common application of the word 'Tango', worldwide.

Our extreme visibility on the web helped locals and visitors to find us. It led artists, musicians, performers, organizers and instructors to collaborate with us ... people have moved to Eugene and attended the University of Oregon because our website gave them a lively and full impression of the local Tango community.

If every project in town had this kind of global presence, linking and referring to each other, the overall ranking of everything in Eugene would rise. I'll explain this momentarily.

Strategies to achieve rank are called "SEO" or Search Engine Optimization. Individuals, companies and institutions invest a great deal of time, money and energy to achieve a high rank, for certain search terms. This "drives traffic" to their sites ... in other words, more people visit, more often.

Not just metaphors

Google's engineers work continuously to automate the process of awarding rank to websites. A website's content must be relevant, and the site must be linked, in relevant ways, to many other well-ranked sites. I think of this as a "heft" given a site by other "heavy" sites, a bit like a spider's web re-shaped by dew-drops of various sizes ... or, if you've ever taken discrete mathematics: this is like a weighted graph. Google uses the metaphor of websites "voting" for each other with links, providing "winners" for certain content on the web.

So, a critically important web promotion strategy is to get other good websites to link to your website. For example, if the Register-Guard writes an article about your business, make sure they provide their readers a live link (not only text of the link, but something the user can click) to your business.

It's quite reasonable to cooperate with other websites in this way, for mutual support, linking to each other to form a kind of connected subset of websites. This cooperative group needs to represent real diversity of origin, and the references to each other need to make sense ... Google has analytical methods that can sense feigned diversity, and sense "link farms" and the mere "trading" of links between sites.

Act Now

So, citizens and supporters of Eugene, let's cooperate to improve our mutual ranking, our relevant contributions, and our international standing.

Follow these simple rules:

1. Get ALL of your good content onto the web.

2. Make sure all of your web pages always link to any relevant local content.

In other words, a community must put itself online, to be globally relevant. This means that everyone must get to know the strengths and diverse qualities of their community, write about them, and link to them as much as possible.

All members of the community must become more self-aware, and more generous with promotion of each other, online.

To effect our real-world economy, we'll all need to do our part.

Eugene has thousands of under-promoted world-class businesses, websites, stories, people, etc. To give us our due internationally, we only need to cooperate with each other.

Meeting Potential and Fixing Problems

Let's look at an example with much room for improvement: a page in the Register-Guard online version of Ticket:

(Register Guard Ticket for Nov. 28 - Dec. 2, 2008) [link no longer valid -- that's the problem!]

Every line in this calendar could have local links, which would help to increase the ranking of both the Register-Guard and each of the artists, groups, businesses, venues, non-profits, agencies and sponsors involved. Some are local, some are not, but that doesn't matter. Associating the name and link of a non-local group or organization with a local venue or organization will help raise everyone's profile ... and that's how page rank is supposed to work. When you type into Google something like "Tango eugene oregon", you should get both The Tango Center and the artists who've been there, whether international, like Cecilia Gonzalez or local, like Mood Area 52. By helping to connect others, we raise our own profile on the web.

So, everything we put on the web must be stuffed with relevant hyperlinks ...

The Long Tail

But we also need to get more of Eugene onto the web. The tactic of putting volumes of relatively historic or obscure material on the web, targeting smaller, niche audiences, is usually referred to as The Long Tail.

For example, it seems that none of Eugene's local papers or magazines are trying very hard to get their back issues onto the web. Recently, The Register Guard even reduced its online content significantly. This immediately lowered their ranking on Google, reducing successful traffic to their site, and reducing traffic to everything in Eugene they write about.

This is a fixable problem, however. With available labor, improvements in scanning software, and initiatives by Google to get more content online, we could have every issue of The Register Guard, The Eugene Weekly, The Oregon Daily Emerald, Eugene Magazine [update:Eugene Magazine now archived], all the TV and Radio stations, and all their predecessors, online, earning ad revenue and driving traffic to other Eugene businesses.

Let's look at the University of Oregon, a potential helper in this city-wide initiative. Improving the chances of an appearance in search results of any kind of research, would help our local economy. An example off the top of my head: the UO is a world-leader in developmental biology, due to the success of zebrafish studies. However, if I type developmental biology into Google, and look at the results page, "Oregon" is not visible. I see Guelph, Canada, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, and Arizona ... dig a little deeper, and you can see that this is because those Universities spend a little effort, and no money to speak of, to collect some resources for the public and for their colleagues. The Internet is a place where being helpful makes you popular! As we do this, we will in turn make the UO, Eugene and Oregon, successful.

In this example, how would that be done?

Lengthening the Long Tail

Imagine many helpful pages on Developmental Biology at the UO, linked to pages by all the students and staff of the relevant departments, which would then link to all their local and non-local connections and interests. Imagine if local developmental biologists initiated more international online cooperative projects, such as open-source initiatives, social networks, and wikis for developmental biology. These are simple to initiate, and not hard to make successful, if we actually use our wide international influence to do so. All these nearly cost-free efforts would improve web content, while promoting Eugene and the University.

The same efforts could be made by every employee and student in the4J, the entire staff of the City of Eugene and Lane County, and every organization ... we need to uncover everything ... and get the entire city, its interests, quirks, opinions, history, research, findings, stories, photos, videos and arts online, and cross-referenced.

Anyone promoting themselves would do this ... but if an entire city did it, its online businesses' sales would increase dramatically, its non-profits and institutions would receive more grants, its population would be retained more often for its technologically savvy and innovation, and it would be providing the world with better information services.

Remember, anything you do will help. You can start right now ... use the comments section of this blog to promote Eugene and downtown businesses, non-profits, and special people, to the world. If you have your own web content, scour it for potential links, as in the calendar example above. If you have no web content: why not? Eugene is full of people with something to say. Get a blog, get a website, start a Social Network (here's one of mine), or publish pages on MySpace,Flickr, Google Groups, Yahoo Groups, YouTube, Wikipedia etc. Create good web content, the best you can manage. Help your friends and neighbors to get online, show them what you've learned, think of new approaches, and, continually, link to each other. It's not only symbolic -- it will have a real-world effect!

posted by Greg Bryant @ 12:07 PM

Monday, December 15, 2008

Reprinted in RAIN, December 15, 2012