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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A tale of two search engine result pages (SERPs)

As many of us are wont to do, I periodically perform exact match searches on my full name on various search engines. For neutrality, I use a cache- and cookie-cleared Firefox, and happen to be on OSX.

The results I see from Google and Bing today, are surprisingly different. While it doesn't surprise me that Google prioritizes its own sites (of which blogspot is one), the Dogear and Lotus presence are listed in the top SERP, which is a bit surprising, considering how old they are.

Bing, on the other hand, doesn't show any of my employer-hosted pages, not just in the top set of results, but anywhere in the 45 listings it provides.

Google also claims there are "about 476" hits for my name in double quotes - that's more than ten times the number acknowledged by Bing. Also, due to a combination of its emphasis on Facebook matches and my high security settings, 4 of the Bing hits are of someone eponymous to me, whereas only 2 of Google's points to that same person (who isn't me).

In subsequent SERPs in both engines, one sees evidence of my "eminence" from the NLP related work I'd loved and still think about often, commingled with my time at university.

Here are the Google hits:

Did you mean: "Mayu Takeuchi" 

  1. Now, the Bing results:

      • Computer Software · 
      • 214 connections · 
      • Austria
      Mayo Takeuchi Location Austria Industry Computer Software Übersicht von Mayo TakeuchiEmpfehlungen 3 Personen haben Mayo Takeuchi empfohlen
      • Computer Software · 
      • 3 recommendations · 
      • 212 connections · 
      • Austria
      Mayo Takeuchi Location Austria Industry Computer Software Mayo Takeuchi's Overview Recommendations 3 people have recommended Mayo
    • Mayo Takeuchi's Gallery
    • Mayo TakeuchiさんはFacebookを利用しています。Facebookに登録して、Mayo Takeuchiさんや他の知り合いと交流しましょう。Facebookは、人々が簡単 ...
    • Looking for Mayo Takeuchi of Boston, MA? Search our extensive people database to find anyone online, then reconnect with them at MyLife™.
    • マヨ タケウチ (MayoTakeuchi) is on Twitter. Sign up for Twitter to follow マヨ タケウチ (MayoTakeuchi) and get their latest updates
    • MayoTakeuchi's Twibes Profile ... %IMG_START% id='img_%ID%' border="0" alt="%FROM_USER%" src="%PROFILE_IMAGE_URL%" onmouseover="_groups.ShowHoverMenu ... · Cached page
    • Sign Up Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life. ... Mayo Takeuchi
    • Sign Up Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life. ... Mayo Takeuchi
    • Daniel Hsu. Shannon Mcmillan. Devon Fowler. Omar Amin. Marcos Carvalho. Penka VM . Akira Amano. Alex Lam. Ben Mayer. Mayo Takeuchi. …

Monday, June 27, 2011

Thoughts on cross-linking, back-linking

In the early days of the world wide web, most links to external sites were, in my opinion, "legitimate" rather than contrived. My first site dated back to 1994, and consisted of a landing page along with some samples of my academic writing. Back then, besides having no Wikipedia (but a plethora of Usenet newsgroups to refer to), I was able to mainly browse and select what I considered to be quality sites to which to link, and I gave no thought to soliciting inbound links from those destinations.

Something that I recall about Japanese sites before the turn of the millennium, is that the cultural concept of "giri" was being commonly applied to making links mutual, and more interestingly, that authors of content gave explicit permission to have their content linked to by strangers, with the proper etiquette that when one created an external link, the owner(s) of the destination page would be notified.

Now, most SEO blogs and resources speak of the painstaking road to soliciting backlinks (aka inbound links to one's own web presence), of websites that don't provide link juice (via the "nofollow" HTML parameter). More recently (but when SEO was still nascent), "I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine" links were the easiest way to gain backlinks, albeit at the cost of being obliged to link out to them oneself. But the more orchestrated this arrangement became (pardon me; this pun wasn't intended!), the less valued these links became in the eyes of search engines. Which to me, makes sense - the spirit of creating links has been corrupted by the conscious intent of raising one's SERP ranking.

Since there is so much content on the internet, I do understand that the mindset of "if you build [quality content], they will [link to you]" has to be paired now with keyword awareness. But the idealist in me still hopes that people would seek out useful and well-presented material to link to, regardless of the (un)likelihood of gaining an inbound link themselves.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The importance of values - corporate and personal

My employer formally arrived at corporate values, several years ago. I actually am not just in agreement, but strongly supportive of these values, fortunately perhaps. One of them is "trust and personal responsibility in all relationships" - and I believe that aligns well with the secular humanist school, to which I ascribe.

Growing up as a visible minority in a culturally diverse environment, I recall how often classmates and their parents alike, had pre-conceived notions - what I'd call mainly prejudicial assumptions - of what values I may espouse, all based on my parents' heritage (and statistically, I was more likely to be Chinese, so was often mistaken to be one). What they didn't seem to consider, though, was that my parents had clearly had to have fundamentally rejected some of the strongest values supposedly held by the Japanese: conformity (at least outwardly) and avoiding familial shame, in order to embrace a Westernized country, and become immigrants.  Otherwise they wouldn't have met, nor married - so I would not have existed.

Thus the value set that I was exposed to at home, while somewhat reflecting Buddhist and Shintoist views, was also a distinct and unconventional variant that was uniquely formed by the personalities that belonged to my mother and father, who in turn came by them via their respective formative experiences. That, in turn, was interpreted via my personality filter and combined strongly with the Judeo-Christian, individualist mindset embodied by the school system.

It was the many people who chose to make cultural assumptions and projections onto me without regard for what I was actually like, that caused me from an early age to make a distinct effort to understand individuals outside the context of what their ethnicity might imply. As time went on, I ended up studying human behaviour in an academic context as well, and from that schooling, I came to understand that people tend to only superficially align to behaviours what they believe are expected of them by others and with certain external circumstances. Conversely, when they're kept in isolation, their innate personalities dictate their reactions, not gender roles, externally imposed societal rules or any personae they wish to present to society at large.

I believe our values, regardless of where they may fall on the moral compass, become real at the point that we act through and upon them consistently and with conviction. When enough people in a community, be it real or virtual, business or residential, choose to prioritize certain ideals and principles, the collective strength of the actions that are based on those abstract concepts can transform society. 

I'll close this post with a dialogue that also touches upon the importance of believing in artificial constructs. It's possibly the most cynical thing I've read from fellow Secular Humanist, Sir Terry Pratchett, but I agree with this, too.

From the Hogfather (adapted for the TV movie milieu):
Death: Humans need fantasy to *be* human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape. 
Susan: With tooth fairies? Hogfathers? 
Death: Yes. As practice, you have to start out learning to believe the little lies. 
Susan: So we can believe the big ones? 
Death: Yes. Justice, mercy, duty. That sort of thing. 
Susan: They're not the same at all. 
Death: You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder, and sieve it through the finest sieve, and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet, you try to act as if there is some ideal order in the world. As if there is some, some rightness in the universe, by which it may be judged. 
Susan: But people have got to believe that, or what's the point? 
Death: You need to believe in things that aren't true. How else can they become? 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Link bait thoughts - Infographics

I have a love-hate relationship with Infographics. For those who haven't seen many examples, they're concise sources of information presented with plenty of visual aids. Here's a source of a self-referential infographic, followed by 49 great examples.

I love them, because my first language uses a logographic script, kanji, and as I grew up with manga, I'd always known that practically any subject, ranging from history to arithmetic and even abstract concepts such as those covered in philosophy, could be learned via a mix of graphics and text. As an aside, when I mention manga to non-Otaku, invariably I receive two questions: "Aren't comics for kids?" (Answer: not in Japan - there, manga exists for every age and demographic.) And, "What subjects do non-kid manga cover then?" (Answer: what do you think "novels" cover?)

However, the concise presentation of information found in many cases also reminds me of "executive summaries" and "dashboards" - in my experience, remarkably complicated details, caveats, and alarmingly, crucial yet oft-overlooked aspects like validity of the source(s) and timeliness of reports, can all be glossed over in the interest of ensuring that a Director or C-suite level person can grasp the overall sense of something within mere seconds.

When simplification occurs to make the information fit the physical limits of a slide presentation or infographic, I am wary of what's omitted. Even pure text articles, when edited with bias or recklessness, can easily mislead the reader - something I've often complained about when I see "science" news articles in non-specialized periodicals or pseudo-popular magazines like Psychology Today. How large and how diverse was the sample the study was based on? Who vetted the results and are they reproducible?

Conversely, poorly executed infographics can be not just "eye-chart" like to read, but are conducive to overloading the reader, wherein it's arguable just how efficient it is to examine one. Of course, since we're all exposed to enormous amounts of information so readily, I would hope that schools are now emphasizing less blind credulity and more critical thinking. Now more than ever, it's not rote memorization but rather the reasoning process which is needed to discern what sources are deservedly authoritative, and what needs be taken with skepticism.

Now I'll go back to that link with the informationally dense (but well designed) instances to learn some more. :)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Where on-page SEO and essay writing practices coincide

Casting my mind back to (well) over a decade ago, I still remember being taught some principles of short essay writing:
  • The title should reflect the primary topic.
  • As with well-formed markup language (HTML, XML), the opening and closing sentences should summarize the topic, assertion or opinion. 
  • Each of the middle paragraphs should cover interrelated ideas that expound upon the main topic, and be ordered logically, building upon the prior paragraph.
  • Boldface and italics can emphasize important points, though they should be used sparingly.
In looking at Google's algorithm for keyword density and prominence factors, we see that they seem to expect these exact best practices in every web page in order to determine what the topic is for said page:
  • The <title> and <h1> tags should contain the primary keyword - the prominence is also dependent upon overall length of the text strings, and the position in which it occurs.
  • The keyword should occur in the first and closing sections of the main body of text.
  • Secondary and tertiary keywords should occur in the <h2>-<h6> headers, as well as interspersed through the text.
  • Text that are in <b>, <em> and <i> tags, as well as anchor text are considered more heavily than plain text.
Learning about the latter criteria was, therefore, eerily familiar, and intuitively clear. Sound writing practices would, in fact, "organically" align with these SEO-related checkpoints. I found this encouraging.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Part 3 of Cross-cultural communication conundra

A few years ago, I met a director-level gentleman whom I consider to be quite maverick and not too politically correct, from what I'll call "Geography A". He was known for his habit of opening meetings by saying the following, where I've omitted the nationalities:
[Geography A], speak up. [Geography B]. shut up and listen up.
Although I can't really feel comfortable saying this myself, I did understand his viewpoint. Behaviourally speaking, I have found that one's experience in school influences how one conduct him/herself in the workplace. Personally, I am mainly a product of the Canadian education system, which akin to the American, emphasized in-class participation ("speaking up" in discussions). However, I also have exposure to the Japanese schooling mindset albeit in a distorted fashion: there, as in what my past colleagues (as well as spouse) describe as the Irish system, classrooms remained predominantly silent except for the teacher's voice. In Japan, my understanding also is that when students do speak up, they do so via structured activities such as when asked to read from texts, answer questions (where the teacher selects the respondent with or without raised hands). Rote memorization of facts and formulae are demonstrated mainly via tests and written work.

Given such differences experienced during one's formative years, it actually makes sense that we would continue to act in ways that used to be rewarded behaviour. This leads to some anecdotal observations I have compiled over the years:
  • Silent participants cannot be assumed to fully understand or accept the flow of discussion. They may choose to raise objections or ask questions "offline".
  • Silent participants also do not necessarily feel unenthused or disinterested in the discussions, and may have quite useful insights to offer, but not during the "thick" (middle) of proceedings.
  • People who show a preference to be heard, do not always have valuable contributions to make but rather may believe that recognition of their worth hinges on "getting airtime" (taking opportunities to speak as often as possible).
  • Vocal people may believe they're taking control over the flow of discussion, but if their audience falls under the "comfortable in silence" category and their signal to noise ratio is low, chances are they're gradually sabotaging their professional image, and deluding themselves in the process.
The early conclusion I'd drawn from various experiences working in global teams, thus, was that in any form of communication, verbal or written, the cardinal rule (as mentioned in an earlier comment) is to "know thy audience".

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tips on taking meeting minutes

I've seen my share of enigmatic meeting minutes, which usually consist of enumerating topic headings that may or may not be attributed to the speaker(s) involved. I'd always believed that the purpose of minutes was to accurately and thoroughly capture the proceedings of meetings such that those absent could, at minimum, understand the salient points of what transpired. Thus it surprises me to see examples that read like cue cards where, clearly, one had to be there to even get an inkling (to have the slightest clue) of what the meeting was about.

Here are my best practice suggestions, therefore, to create minutes that are indeed useful and worth sending to others:
  • Take notes that will jog your own memory, while others are speaking. Specific techniques would vary by individual; I usually take full sentence quotes because I'm able to type quickly enough.
  • While taking the rough notes, focus on action items, decisions, or points that pertain to any subsequent meetings or of special interest to those who were absent.
  • In some cases, not everything should be included in the minutes. If unsure, ask the participants, and if there's a request to omit something, take note of that as well (for your own records).
  • Use the notes taken during the meeting to compile informative and concise sentences. I usually do this within the first half hour after the meeting ends, while my recollections are fresh.
  • Review this draft of minutes to see if the order of the content can be optimized, and re-work the draft if necessary. This is usually when I add hyperlinks to relevant web pages in the intranet and/or internet, and if anyone had sent me IMs or emails with additional content, I include the relevant attachments or quotes at this stage.
  • If necessary, run spell and/or grammar check.
  • Ensure the best recipients are selected to receive the minutes, and then send it out.
  • If it's important to retain records of these meetings, I back them up additionally by uploading the content to a shared environment that is accessible to the right audience.
Hope this helps!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Colours of the SEO "Hats"

I have found a site that contained a quote that I agree with: 
Search engine optimization is just a means to help distribute your message. Nothing more, nothing less. Calling search engine optimization unethical is similar to calling creating a website or printing a newspaper unethical.
When I started in the Web Effectiveness role just over a year ago, the concept of white and black hat practices also became part of my consciousness. The Wikipedia article on white vs. black hat also mentions the existence of grey hat techniques, which implies that instead of a dichotomy, there in fact exists a continuum of optimizing measures, where web pages can be boosted in SERP (search engine result page) rankings. This leads me to believe that there is no such thing as pure white or black practices in SEO, only shades of grey.

Search engine ranking algorithms are not just multi-layered and complicated, but also ever changing. I would describe black hat practices as not so much ways to contravene the supposed rules that search engines apply when indexing web content, but rather as tactics that accelerate the evolution of ranking algorithms, due to their exploitation of the weaknesses in bot-driven (without human intervention) classification that occurs for the vast majority of web content. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that these algorithms wouldn't change, even if every single entity on the web only employed search engine compliant techniques.

So, search engines control result rankings (and thus dictate what hue of grey various practices might be), which means they wield a lot of power. Does might make right? Are all search engines "ethically" generating their results? An interesting example was the allegation that Bing copied bogus results from Google, and the ensuing debate (here's a Searchengineland article from February 2011 that links in turn to the various coverage of the refutations).

Friday, June 10, 2011

More thoughts on formal verbal interaction

One of my blog followers was kind enough to mention to me that my inaugural post had helped someone to execute telephone based communication more effectively (in the context of charity fundraising). Which is why I've decided to make a few more observations about communicating with others in a formal setting (be they virtual or in person).

While in school, which was now long enough ago that I'm hoping many of my then-teachers have retired and forgotten about me and thus wouldn't seek this blog out, I began to implement a "planted questions" technique. I chose peers who were typically quieter in the classroom, and requested that they ask me pre-defined questions whenever I had a presentation to make. Since I had control over these questions and thus my responses, this technique killed several proverbial birds with one stone: I would seem better prepared to handle the Q&A part of the work, my classmates would speak up and improve their participation rating, and I could cover slightly extraneous topics that didn't quite fit into the main work by creating leading questions.

Many years later, I continue to present information to others, albeit primarily via desktop sharing and phone. Unfortunately I've found that retaining my audience's attention is a constant challenge. Specifically, I suspect that most attendees of teleconferences allow themselves to be distracted by a multitude of things, as I myself am tempted at times. Usually, instant messages from other colleagues and incoming cell phone calls are the culprits. If participants go on "mute" the likelihood increases that they're typing to others. This practice also creates delays in the agenda if people forget to come off of mute mode when trying to speak, so I only encourage muting if I'm focussed on broadcasting information, rather than trying to moderate discussions.

Since lacking visual cues, in particular body language and eye contact, sometimes leads to my suddenly insertion of confirmatory questions mid-way through an explanatory speech, prompting action by my audience. Also, I don't fear silence (perhaps a cultural trait that stems from the Eastern mindset of "silence is golden; don't break it unless you can improve upon it") so sometimes I'll take a pause. A break in the rhythm of speech can return the participants' attention to the call.

Most of my readers probably know this already, but I don't especially enjoy teleconferences. In fact, I have long harboured an aversion to using the phone for personal communication, which was instilled in me from an early age (and exacerbated by "bad language days", which I may expound on in a subsequent post). I only arrange calls as moderator when absolutely necessary, although I do conscientiously attend others' calls. I sometimes wish that more people would be responsive via email and group IM chats, because in that case the need for both speaking and taking minutes would be greatly reduced.

As this is quite a long post already, I'll promise a separate post (or more), on minute taking tips.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Interjection abuse in speech

One of my numerous, albeit fairly minor, peeves concerns when someone who "has the floor" (for the non-native English speakers, this equates to "is in the position to be speaking" or "is commanding the audience's attention") chooses to use interjections in a noticeably frequent way. It's a technique we often use to buy thinking time, rather than pausing long enough to fully formulate sentences prior to delivering them.

A couple of common ones in my experience are "at this point in time" instead of just saying "now" and "you know". The second example is one I've used on occasion (much to my chagrin), usually when trying to rephrase a point to be made. In German, it seems that the equivalent phrase I hear most often is a  translation of the Latin "id est" or "i.e."; "das heißt". Another one I used to hear discomfitingly frequently was "to be perfectly honest with you". After hearing it umpteen times in a row, I had to suppress my strong desire to inquire "so if you don't say this, I may presume you're being disingenuous?"

Admittedly when I also fall into this trap, I can impersonally observe and explain the shift in my speech. It's partially triggered by a desire to nurture business relationships through the telephone through mirroring others' verbal mannerisms.

In any case, my struggle to curb the (excessive) use of interjections continues daily.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Balancing diction (quality) and comprehensibility (effectiveness)

Something which by now may have become apparent to my colleagues and friends alike, is that in personal writing I gravitate toward long and complicated sentences. The formality of my writing has also been remarked upon by more than one friend. On the other hand, I also try to optimize diction: that is, I have an old habit of attempting to use whatever word I believe is most appropriate, regardless of how rarely one might hear it.

In my Japanese language post from May, I had mentioned that I experience a constant struggle to maintain linguistic competence. In fact, it seems self evident that disuse leads to atrophy in many situations, be they physical (musculature), neural (pathways to access memories) or otherwise.

With tweeting, the stringent limit on message length means I struggle with the inevitable prevalence of abbreviations and  (in that case, &) initialisms - and rarely, acronyms - far more in English than I do in Japanese. However, in the latter tongue I clearly need to acquire more Kango (vocabulary of Chinese origin). This is why I can finally appreciate the efficacy of Kango (in succinctly yet accurately conveying information), and in turn why reading the newspapers in Japanese is a challenge.

Professionally speaking, my time as documentation author both while at university (I created an administrator's guide for OCLC) and in the workplace (for a Notes-based CRM application) begot some persisting habits. In that context, I ensure that sentences are shorter and vocabulary is pared, although in the latter practice there is a clear conflict between wishing to give the reader a plethora of synonyms for interests' sake, and the need to facilitate the translation process especially where MT (machine translation) is involved at the onset.

This blog, then, is a merged entity when it comes to its style as it consists of personal ramblings about professional topics, readers may anticipate that my thought processes will be documented here without too much editing. Hopefully, my formality will not be mistaken for aloofness, any more than my diction is taken (as it had been, quite often, during my school years) for arrogance.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Web Personalization and SEO: the convergence of past and present roles

When I moved countries, my role focussed on (though it wasn't strictly limited to) managing the web personalization (p13n) programme for my employer. This meant that there was pre-existing tooling that I had to promote to various internal adopters and webmasters, along with some supervisory work to maintain data. The succinct slogan I created to describe the aim of the programme was the following:

To present the right content to the right audience at the right time.

For various reasons, as of last year I joined the ranks of those already involved in what we call "Web Effectiveness" work. Here, usability and organic SEO are the main topics (with a side order of paid search optimization).

It occurs to me that, in fact, that p13n slogan that I'd created can directly be applied to what I'm still doing. Sure, the tooling is different, and my stakeholders are also different. But there, the dissimilarities end. My team essentially helps web content owners to optimize their pages in a way that the people who would most appreciate our offerings are able to find us most easily, and have a positive user experience.

Having a more direct connection to the web content we publish appeals to the technical writer within me. Perhaps I'll become a true SEO pundit yet.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Localization does not equal straight translation

That's right folks - localizing text, in particular marketing and promotional copy, is not simply a matter of finding a competent translator who has native fluency in both source and target languages. And I'm sure many of my readers already knew that.

So why mention it here? Because I've entered the land of SEO, particularly in the context of a multinational company where most localization starts with a central (and usually English language) source which is then adopted by a subset of our countries. An organically search engine optimized English web page will not be automatically optimized in the localized version.

In other words, having the most effective keywords determined for the source language cannot and will not absolve the page owner of the localized version of ensuring that someone performs keyword research for this content.

To delve further into the best practices of text localization, I've found that it involves a profound knowledge of how one can realistically or typically expect a culture to think. Are they taught critical and skeptical thinking in their education system? Do they belong to a dominant economy, or are they dwarfed by a superpower neighbour? Do high level concepts appeal to their thought processes, or meticulous, quantifiable data? Understanding what motivates and interests a collective of people, the target audience, and implementing these insights through writing is, in fact, crucial to successful localization.

It wasn't until I began exploring the differences in conducting business in Austria and Germany, who presumably share a common language, that this truly came to light for me. But, more on that in a later post.

About Mayo

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Professional: As "Senior Enterprise SEO Strategist" in IBM's Digital Marketing division, I provide consulting and training services for both internal and external clients. Formerly I was involved in Natural Language Processing, software localization, quality assurance and documentation authoring.
Personal: INTJ Nikkei Nisei ex-patriated Canadian who takes photographs and enjoys Baroque through late Classical music. The G+ page shares some of the "best of" photos.