Sometimes I really get it wrong; my apology to SEO industry

I’m not always right (I doubt anyone can in the world of tech if they are trying to predict the future) but here’s an example of when I got something really wrong (this was an example from my writing back in 2007). I thought more human-oriented approaches, like Mahalo, would get better results than algorithmic approaches, like Google. Why? I showed an example where SEO techniques had put stuff into Google searches that just wasn’t very good and compared that to where Mahalo had done a better job.

Anyway, it’s 2011 now and it’s clear that the Google way of doing things is still better for most people. It’s instructive to go back and see where I went wrong.

1. I didn’t listen to my own user behavior. Truth is, since 2007 I’ve rarely been to Mahalo. I rarely find that that site is authoritative on, well, anything. Compare it to Quora, for instance, and I find Quora more interesting in almost every case. I should have listened to my own behavior more.

2. I was trying to kiss someone’s behind and let that bias my conclusions. Why? I had visited Mahalo, gotten a tour of it with Jason Calacanis, who is an entrepreneurs who, back then, had a lot of power because he was a partner with Techcrunch and because he had successfully kicked off WeblogsInc, which included Engadget and sold to AOL. I assumed what he told me about where the industry was going was correct. As most journalists learn, I should have fact checked his statements. In college we learned “if your mother says she loves you you should check it out.” I didn’t, and now am facing the damage that happens when you say something that later turns out to be wrong.

3. I bet against momentum and user behavior. Truth is, even if Mahalo DID beat Google, it just wasn’t going to beat Wikipedia or Google itself. Why not? Mahalo couldn’t compete with the data Google had to study. Google knows a LOT more about our reading behavior than Mahalo does and can readjust its rankings accordingly (since 2007, for instance, Google brought out Instant Search which is far more useful for me than anything Mahalo has done. Why was that possible? Google has the user data, Mahalo doesn’t). Another more modern example of this is while I like Chewsy’s featureset, it is totally failing against Foodspotting because Foodspotting has more users. Same as I pointed out in my most recent post. Foursquare is beating Gowalla mostly because it has more users.

4. I went for cheap SEO tricks. Truth is, if you bash the SEO world they will all link to you, argue with you, etc. (Bloggers even have a name for this: “link bait”). Folks who do SEO as a profession love fighting about that stuff and it almost always works. But, does it really help you get the traffic you want? The reputation you want? No way. Putting up great content, like when I interviewed Mike McCue and told the world about Flipboard is a far more effective way to get good Google Juice. Taking shortcuts just tarnishes your reputation.

Anyway, just wanted to say I’m sorry to the SEO industry.

I’ll try to get it more right next time.


Can Disney help Gowalla in its battle with Foursquare?

I’ll be honest, it’s been a while since I’ve used Gowalla (a location-based checkin service you use on your phone). I’ve found that in most of the cities I visit Foursquare has more users, more tips, is faster, easier to check in, etc.

But when I arrived at DisneyWorld yesterday for a private tour with several Disney employees, among others, I learned that Disney liked Gowalla more. That got me to redownload the app onto one of my iPhones and as we went around the park I checked into both Gowalla and Foursquare.

Some things became clear immediately. Gowalla has a much more attractive design, and has a bunch of fun games to play as you visit different attractions. But I kept asking myself “will this experience get me to use Gowalla and, even more importantly, will it get average visitors to the park to use Gowalla.”

In the end analysis, no. Why not? Because even though Disney’s management likes Gowalla they haven’t made it easy for an average park visitor to find out about it. I never saw a “check into Gowalla here for a fun game” sign in any of the three parks we visited. I never saw Gowalla named in the brochures, maps, etc I got.

And, worse for Gowalla, when I did check in on Gowalla I never saw the number of users that I saw on Foursquare and the tips that Foursquare users left were generally more interesting than Gowalla’s better design and cool virtual objects left around to pick up.

What did I see on Gowalla? Tons of Disney employees playing, but after a while they even admitted there were some severe problems with Gowalla. Here’s a list of things that came up after using it all day long:

1. Gowalla is SLLLLLLLOOOOOOOOOWWWWW to check in. Foursquare consistently beat it on check in speed.
2. Gowalla still has problem checking in. Why? Because Gowalla has this lame philosophy that you must be exactly where you say you are checking in. Often times, though, we were already walking away from a ride when we remembered we didn’t check in. Foursquare let us check in while walking away. Gowalla often didn’t.
3. Gowalla didn’t let park experts fix bad entries, Foursquare did. Most of the people I was walking around with are Foursquare power users. Foursquare gives those kinds of users special abilities to fix their database in case ride names are misspelled, or some guest entered in a duplicate name, etc. We saw all sorts of evidence in Gowalla that there were mistakes, duplicates, etc, but in Foursquare there were none. Disney employees say they would fix mistakes, but aren’t given the ability to.

Then, once you get off park property it gets worse. As I type this I’m in Orlando’s airport. It says two of my friends are checked in here within the last three days. In the last hour there are three people listed in recent activity. I open up Foursquare and 74 other people are here along with 430 tips.

So, no contest, Disney can’t help Gowalla. Bums me out, cause I like the Gowalla team and design. But users beat all that. Disney should make a deal with Foursquare and get on board.