Why You Should Never Google Yourself

Faced with a list of tiresome chores and no writing mojo to be found anywhere, I decided to indulge in a little private time this morning. I did something we all do, but rarely admit to.

I Googled myself.

The first page was pretty much what I expected. My blogs shannonmeyerkort.com and Relentless came up, as did my profile on WeekendNotes. There was my LinkedIn profile, gathering cobwebs and dust, various reviews and old academic papers, plus lots of mentions of my Brutal Truth About the Third Child.

I was chuffed to see my Master thesis get a mention on Google Books. Zero reviews and zero stars… probably because the only copy is sitting on a shelf somewhere gathering dust.

I had really begun to enjoy myself. No nude photos. No websites dedicated to destroying me. No embarrassing Facebook shots that someone else had posted.

But then a site came up that I didn’t recognise, and I got a little squeezy sensation in my stomach. Had someone stolen my words or had they written someone awful about me?

This is precisely why they say don’t Google yourself. Sometimes it’s better not to know what others are writing about you.

But I had to find out. Besides, it was in Italian.

There was a picture of me and my family (a picture they don’t have permission to use, but we’ll ignore that) and my name. I could guess at a few of the words: ironia, testimonianza, blogger Americana.

Uh, hang on.

I went back and hit the Google translate button for the page. Then, in a fabulous mash of Italian and English, appeared an article that was designed to look like I had been interviewed, but really was just a bit of a cut and paste of my Brutal Truth article.

The translations are even better than my original article: “You can doze and sleep all day and as a priestess stroll touching your belly waiting for a football.”

Some of it is pretty funny because it still makes sense:

“Are you happy of nausea and vomiting because it means you can have five minutes to get you in the bathroom?”

And other parts are completely mystifying:

“Rilavi reluctantly the vestititi used with a normal detergent, throw some broken play, refreshments sheets cradle. Your son has already managed to dismantle all sure that you put in the house and survived, so it is not necessary to reposition the newcomer.”

I liked how the Italians automatically assumed I had sons.

The French version of my ‘Letter of Apology to my Middle Child’ described it as “a mother issu[ing] an apology letter to his middle child”. And I thought I had difficulty with French pronouns.

“Shannon notes that this has forged the character of its small second. She teases threats, disputes, compromises. All you seem to want, and that is so hard to give is my complete attention. It’s hard because I have three children, a house to manage and my writing.”

I particularly liked being referred to as an ‘its’. Thanks French people.

The Portuguese translation of The Brutal Truth was possibly my favourite, especially how they introduced me:

“Shannon Meyerkort is a writer, blogger and mother of three girls under seven years. His love for writing is not simple, because it implies that you are sitting to do so.”

I love how they aren’t beholden to gender assumptions about mothers being women. How refreshing.

The translation seems to make things worse than they really are:

“It seems that is six months pregnant by the time we hit the second quarter. Sit persecuted and cries a lot.”

And then go a little hard-core with the language:

“People who have just given birth, begin to upset her with all the talk bullshit about babies.”

Then they go hard-core with the parenting:

“Push your child out of the crib, take them cuddly and dispose of them in a weekend.”

That’s a bit rough, even for me.

I haven’t yet ploughed deeper into the world of Google to see if the Chinese have their own translations of The Brutal Truth, but if it’s ever found, please let me know.

So, You Want to be Restaurant Reviewer

I have been doing restaurant reviews in a very informal capacity since 2010 when I started writing for WeekendNotes. I was looking for a paid writing job that I could do in my own time, and the advert to write about ‘things you could do on your weekend’ appealed to me. I was regularly eating out, so why not write about it and get paid* at the same time?

Since then I have clocked up more than 600 articles and even though not all of them are restaurant reviews, I can easily say I have covered a fair bit of ground in the Perth culinary scene. Especially at breakfast time.

One of my articles ‘Share Food Etiquette’ caught the eye of West Australian journalist Gail Williams, herself a food reviewer, who invited me along to a story she was writing on the rise of the share plate phenomenon.

So what does it take to be a food writer?

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The most beautiful dish I have ever eaten, and it was all vegetarian

Know Your Limits

Are you a chef? A nutritionist? A sommelier? A molecular gastronomist? No? Then don’t pretend to be one. The first rule of all writing is ‘write what you know’, and writing about food is no different.

I am very upfront in my reviews that I am not a trained expert when it comes to food, wine or coffee. I don’t pretend to understand the intricate cooking techniques or care about food providence. I know exactly squat about coffee, except that I need at least two every morning.

What I am is a consumer. I write about my experience in visiting a restaurant. I can tell you if the menu is limited or breaks the mould. I can tell you if a restaurant is better suited to big noisy groups or intimate dinners. I can tell you how the service staff treat you. I can talk about price and value and serving sizes. I can describe the room. I will even talk about idiosyncrasies of a place such as access to toilets or parking issues.

By the end of the review I want you to feel like you have already been there, and that you have some ‘insider’ knowledge. Preferably, I want you to feel inspired to go and eat there yourself.

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There IS such a thing as too much chocolate in a kids milkshake

Know Your Niche

So you may not be a trained chef, but you might be a student on a budget. A vegetarian. A mother of small kids. You might be gluten intolerant, or particularly concerned with paddock to plate principles. You have a niche and you should exploit it. Whether you are writing for a blog or a website you will gather followers who also like to eat the same way you do.

I have three young children, so I often write about the child-friendly aspects of restaurants. And as parents will know, it takes more than a plate of chicken nuggets to be really child-friendly. Menu considerations such as price, portion size and child-appropriate meals are obviously important, but the way children (and parents) are treated by service staff is probably even more crucial.

Does the restaurant offer colouring in? Are they happy to rearrange chairs to fit a pram or high chair (do they even have a high chair?). Are they conscious about serving temperature and appropriate utensils. Do they have a play room or a baby change station in the toilets? How do they feel about breast feeding?

You can even write yourself a checklist of items you want to write about every time you do a review, a checklist specific to needs of your particular audience.

Do Your Research

One thing I always try to do in my reviews is to provide background information about a restaurant. Perhaps it might be mentioning the big name chef who run it, perhaps they recently won an important award. On the flip side, perhaps a place has previously been lambasted by the review sites but has now changed management and they deserve another go.

If you don’t understand what an ingredient or technique is, don’t just ignore it or write about it blindly, research it. If you are serious about your craft, you can always call the restaurant and ask for more information, otherwise Google will tend to give you answers for most things.

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The stunning lights over the bar at Nobu Perth

Take Photos of Everything

A well structured photograph of beautiful food will boost hit rates of an online article tenfold. People eat with their eyes, so when reading about food they want to see what their stomachs will enjoy. Not only do I take photos of my food and everyone else’s food (my friends now know not to start eating until I have taken a few images of their dinner), but I also photograph the menu so I can later write with authority about prices, ingredients and the range of dishes offered.

If there is something unusual or quirky about a place, perhaps they have unusual table decorations, a striking view or they use particularly beautiful dishes I always try and take a photo. If there is unusual wall art or overhead lighting, I make sure my readers are able to get a feel of the room.

It’s important to be judicious when taking photographs though. Other people might not want to be photographed, and constant flash lighting can be irritating to other diners. It also attracts attention to you.

Ask Your Companions What They Thought

If you are dining in a group of six, ask the others what they thought because their experience of a restaurant, not to mention their meal, might be very different to yours. Your steak may have been cooked to perfection but their fish might be badly overcooked, or their soufflé hard as a rock. If you have a friend who is vegetarians or gluten intolerant, ask them whether they thought there was sufficient options for them. Ask your wine snob buddy what they thought of the wine list.

If you don't take notes at the time, you will never remember what goes into most dishes

If you don’t take notes at the time, you will never remember what goes into most dishes

Be Specific

While there are certain things you can generalise about, you also can’t go making wild assumptions about a place. There are a number of restaurants these days who have a split personality, and while they are a cheery casual café during the day, at night they might become a fine dining establishment. If you visited a place at lunchtime when the menu is quiche and sandwiches, don’t make wild guesses about their 10 course degustation dinner.

I only write about the food I have personally eaten, unless someone dining with me has specifically commented on their dish and asked me to include it. I also make sure to mention if the specific time I visited might have affected the service or quality of the food, such as if they are in the midst of a major renovation and are operating on a limited menu, or if there was a huge football game on and the restaurant was packed to capacity.

Don’t Write Anything You Wouldn’t Say to a Person’s Face

This last one is just a personal thing. I don’t believe in lampooning people from behind my computer and I always put my name to my reviews and articles. I need to be able to back up everything I write, and yes, I have been contacted by restaurants and catering companies before who didn’t like what I wrote. The first time it happened, I received written letters and obsessive phonecalls from the owner. I briefly considered calling the police, until a quick check on Google showed me that hundreds of other customers were equally upset. The difference was that I put my name to my review, so I was easy to track down, and the others had vented their spleens anonymously online.

I take plenty of photographs, and in 99% of reviews, will take notes either in my phone or in a notepad, dated, so that if a query is raised I can go back to my notes and say ‘this is what happened’.

My basic principle is that if I have more negative things to say about a place than positive, I won’t write the review. There are a few places I haven’t bothered to write about because I had little to say that would be nice. I realise that it could be argued that people should be told if a place is dodgy or poor quality, but I think I will leave that up to the experts (and the State Hygiene Inspectors).

 

Finally, a restaurant review might be a functional piece of writing, and the primary goal is to supply information, but I do not believe that’s any reason not to make it beautiful as well. I try and tell a story with my reviews, so that even if you have no intention of visiting a restaurant I am writing about, you still enjoy reading about it.

*the ‘paid’ aspect of this job advert was a bit misleading

 

Should I Let Other People (Re)Publish my Posts?

This is an issue I have been grappling with for a while: should I let other websites publish my posts on their site?

What about SEO and duplicate content? Will Google freak out? Will readers get annoyed when they see the same post in multiple places? Will I be losing blog traffic? Will I be making other people money at my own expense? Will it affect my blog’s ranking?

On the other hand, will I be getting great exposure? Will I have access to thousands of other readers who wouldn’t normally come across my work? Is this actually the big break I am looking for?

The answer is: I don’t know.

I recently found this article by Kathryn Rose, where she discusses the topic of duplicate content, along with something called rel:canonical tags (which I’d really like to more about if anyone can translate), but the article focuses on when you guest post on someone else’s blog, and then republish on your own.

My specific question is whether I should let other sites republished my content. Do the pros outweigh the cons, especially for new writers, and are there circumstances when it is a bad idea?

In January 2013, iVillage Australia (23,000 Facebook likes) asked to republish ‘A Letter of Apology to my Middle Child’. I agreed on the basis that they were a respected Australian site with a decent following. It was the first time one of my posts had been republished and I was pretty flattered: apparently the editor followed my blog Relentless. Shortly after they asked to republish The Brutal Truth About the Third Child but at the time I refused, since that single post was bringing in about half my blog traffic.

Nothing much happened for a year, then suddenly in February 2014 I had multiple requests to republish The Brutal Truth About the Third Child. First was the UK site Best Daily (31,000 Facebook likes), then came the US site Scary Mommy (164,000 Facebook Likes), the Australian site Mamamia (123,000 Facebook Likes) and finally News.Com.Au (113,000 Facebook likes).

These are big sites, and have brought me an enormous amount of exposure.

Scary Mommy recorded over 1 million shares of my article in the first week, with the editor Jill Smokler saying that only 6 or 7 posts published on her site have ever recorded those sorts of numbers. My Facebook followers have tripled over the past couple of weeks, and Relentless (and this blog) is seeing a lot of traffic coming from these sites.

So I think the first point to make is that compared to my modest number of followers, these sites are massive. The exposure alone is worth the price of possible issues with ranking (though I doubt my ranking was that impressive to start with). So while it would make little sense to allow a site with a smaller fan base than your original blog to republish a post, there are plenty of benefits of being republished on a much larger site.

What about money you say? Those sites earn money from advertising, and people reading your article are probably earning them money.

True. Sort of. In the case of Scary Mommy, Jill puts her money where her mouth is, and Scary Mommy Nation raises money to help feed families who are in need of support. I’m happy to donate my words to an awesome cause like that.

The other sites are commercial, and yes, in a roundabout way my post might be making them a (tiny) bit of money. But I made the decision long ago not to monetise Relentless (maybe it is a decision I will regret) so every time someone clicks on Mamamia and not Relentless, it is not as though I am losing money I would otherwise make.

What about duplicate content?

I’m still scratching my head over this one, because Brutal Truth has now been published on three major sites in three different countries, in addition to my original Blogspot post. That means there are four sets of identical information out there (actually, the version on Best Daily isn’t identical – they wanted me to cut it down to 500 words, an impossible task considering the original is 1,900. We settled on 1,200 words).

So far Google hasn’t seemed to spit the dummy, but what will happen if it does? When you Google ‘The Brutal Truth About the Third Child’ the original blog still comes out on top, closely followed by Mamamia. Scary Mommy had the decency to change the title of the post so that I wouldn’t lose my original traffic, and Best Daily also changed it considerably. Mamamia didn’t change the title of the post, even though I asked them to, and I suspect with their followers it’s likely it will overtake Relentless on the rankings soon enough.

I have also decided that enough is enough, and I will have to say no to future requests to republish The Brutal Truth. It’s out there now, it’s a bit like a mogwai that got fed and now is a gremlin, threatening to take everything else over. I would like to see some of my other babies get some attention.

Another thing I didn’t plan for once the post was republished on big sites, was smaller sites then duplicating their content, with or without my permission. I have found  brutalised versions of The Brutal Truth, chopped and edited to pieces, without my name or blog mentioned anywhere. Needless to say, I have written some strongly worded letters asking them to cease and desist.

So what are lessons I have learned from this, and should you let other sites duplicate your content?

I think for someone in my position, the answer is an overwhelming yes.

I wasn’t make any money from the post anyway, so it’s no issue that commercial sites might be making a few dollars from my post. (It would be nice though, if I could cash in on my own success though.)

The enormous number of new readers is something I could never have hoped to achieve from my own modest blog, and it means that my writing – and my name – have now been seen by millions of readers that otherwise would never have stumbled across Relentless.

I have seen a boost in my Facebook followers and my blog readers.

Finally, I would like to think it paves the way for me to approach these sites (and others) with original work in the future, and hopefully negotiate a payment for new work. Which (I sometimes need to remind myself) is the whole reason for me being here.

 

What are your thoughts on having similar stories published on multiple sites? Is it annoying? Is it dangerous?

The Importance of A Letter (Doing Your Research Properly)

Sometimes a single letter can mean the difference between strippers and the US consular general.

One of the perks working for WeekendNotes is that writers are sometimes offered ‘invites’ (aka ‘freebies’). Just like anyone working in the media, you are given free tickets to an event or show and you are expected to write about it.

I accepted a free lunch once. I was less than amazed and although I tried to write fairly, I ended up upsetting the establishment by writing honestly about the experience. Since then, I have decided ‘no more freebies’. I would rather be able to write freely and honestly and not be beholden to anyone.

Until an invitation for the Xoticar International Women’s Day Luncheon appeared in my mailbox.

Mmm, I thought. Luncheon.

So I did what any self-respecting writing would do, and I googled Xoticar to find out what to expect. Except I didn’t read it properly, and googled Xotica instead.

Stunned, I sat there for a minute wondering how and why a strip club would celebrate International Women’s Day. Would there be topless waitresses serving the luncheon? Would there be a strip show? I couldn’t quite understand the rationale behind the sex industry promoting an International Women’s Day event, except for the obvious fact, that they – indeed – were women.

I was fascinated and as my finger hovered over the ‘register’ button, I wondered who I would take with my other VIP ticket. Did I really want to do this?

So I went back to the WeekendNotes page and looked again if there was any more information. It was then I noticed the ‘r’. Exoticar. I googled that instead and found a company which specialised in pre-owned high end luxury cars.

Ahhhh, that made a little more sense. Not much more sense, but a little more sense. Maybe the company wanted to promote itself to women, and show how women can enjoy fancy cars.

I know exactly enough about cars to understand where to put the petrol in, and that’s about it. But I had already decided to accept the invite and I knew who I would bring along. An old friend (male) who loved cars, and would not only enjoy a free feed but could translate any car-talk to me. Perfect. I registered my interest.

But something was still niggling. Fancy cars and International Women’s day still seemed incongruous. So I googled the full term: Xoticar International Women’s Day Luncheon, and it all became clear.

The luncheon was actually being run by one of Perth’s major charity groups, Momentum, with Xoticar being a major sponsor. Looking through the Momentum website, all thoughts of strippers and fancy cars drifted away to see that the guest speakers included the US Consular General, Dan Vulin, an inspirational burns victim and there would be a fashion parade by one of West Australia’s best designers. Images from previous luncheons showed glamorous women in pearls and silk, smiling elegantly at the camera. This was firmly women’s territory, and my male friend’s invite instantly vaporised without him ever knowing. I’d ask his wife instead.

I don’t think the US Consular General will ever know how close she came to being a stripper.

With The Flick of a Switch

I am completely and utterly dependent on my computer, and that terrifies me.

I am at the pointy end of my university semester –the plan was to submit my final essay this morning, and then be free to do other exciting things. Like the washing.

I had left the room briefly, but when I returned the internet connection was down. At this stage I wasn’t concerned, I just thought I needed to reconnect.

But when I looked at the icon, my mobile broadband was connected. I just didn’t have access to the internet.

To a writer, this seems like mere semantics: connected, access. What’s the difference? I turned my computer and modem on and off a few times, made myself a cuppa soup and tried not to panic.

Nothing was working. Well, to clarify, the computer was working but it wasn’t connected to the internet. It may as well have been a typewriter for all the good it was.

We live in a connected yet virtual age, and for the most past we don’t give much thought to the details of that connectivity. When everything is working it is part of the daily routine.

But when things stop working, we quickly realise how much of that connectivity is bogus.

Your money, your calendar, you contacts list, your debts… almost everything  – to some extent – is tied up to the internet. Lose that access and suddenly your life becomes a lot more difficult.

As a writer, most of my completed work and ideas are sitting on a single computer. Every now and then I think about backing it up onto an external hard drive, but even that’s located about six feet from where I am sitting and probably wouldn’t stand up too well to a fire.

Luckily for me, since I live in a connected world, I was able to flip open my iPad and start searching for solutions. First I tried a forum, but they were basically bagging out computer illiterates like myself. I considered calling my provider for help, but it didn’t end so well the last time I tried (the woman in India started sobbing and eventually asked me to hang up and call back so I would go through to another operator).

So I went back to basics. I found the box my modem came in. I had scratched ‘Do Not Throw Out’ on it, in case I tossed it out in a frenzy of cleaning (it happens).

Inside the book, where I was similarly scrawled all the seemingly pertinent details, it asked under ‘troubleshooting’ – have you got enough credit.

Ahhh.

Five minutes and a hundred bucks later I was online again. Connected and with access.

But it has made me think about the tenuous state I exist in; where a blackout, theft or virus can eradicate not only my writing but also many links to my citizenry.

We have insurance to protect us if we get sick, crash the car or if the house burns down. What sort of protection do we have if we lose our access to the internet? And by that I don’t mean a fifteen minute blind panic because I hadn’t paid a bill, I mean the larger issue of our dependence on technology to control many aspects of our lives. With so many pushes to get us online (internet banking, shopping, trade sharing) how do we protect ourselves in a world, which – with the flick of a switch – ceases to exist?