Everyone knows that Google is the most popular search engine on the Web. What’s the second? It’s probably not what you think. It’s YouTube. Read this article at SearchEngineWatch. After spending time optimizing your site for Google and Microsoft’s search engine Bing, try to post a short video on YouTube. “YouTube has been a phenomenal success for us, and has been our most successful new marketing technique in the last two or three years,” says Lars Hundley of Clean Air Gardening. He shoots videos of products for sale and embeds them on his site’s Web page. You can, too. This page includes a YouTube video of a compost bin.

The Times came out on Wednesdays, and the rhythm of the week was arranged around that day. On Tuesday night we worked late, pasting up the pages and sending them off to be photographed and turned into plates. Wednesday was a low-pressure day. You cleaned up your desk, planned out the next issue, and in the early afternoon, the papers were delivered at the back gate. You could grab samples on your way home.

This week was different. I had a story on the front page. It wasn’t all my story, of course. The by-line was “Bob Burns and Greg Holden.” But that was good enough for me. I had broken through the mold of simply being a columnist and was now a true newspaperman.

When I got home, exhausted, I followed my usual Wednesday routine. I poured some Pepsi, went up to my room, and flopped down in my bed. I turned on the radio and stared at the newspaper spread out on the floor, reading my own stories over and over. It was like massaging my brain or my ego. Seeing my words and my name in print was better than any drug. That’s me, I kept thinking. That’s really who I am.

It wasn’t until the next day that I began to get the reaction. First, the phone rang at home. Thursday was my day off.

“What did you do that for?” Mom’s voice was tight, compressed, as though she was a tightly inflated tire and words, like air, were pouring out through clenched teeth.

“Do what for?” I asked stupidly.

“That story you wrote,” she said. “It’s really getting me in trouble. I’m going to lose my job.”

A hot caustic fluid shot out from my midsection and flooded my arms and legs. My Worry Engine, a machine I inherited from my mother, began churning in high gear. I knew immediately what she meant in a flash. But I asked about it anyway, hoping I was wrong.

“How am I making you lose your job?”

“Mr. Bardolet is really mad about that story you wrote,” she said. I was about to point out that I was only the co-author, but thankfully, I didn’t say this. “That report was supposed to be confidential. How could you do this to me?”

I tried to explain, as calmly as I could, that I wasn’t doing anything to her, that any report paid for by the city was a public matter, the kind of reasoning reporters use all the time. I was trying to be rational, unemotional. This only seemed to make her more anxious. Finally she had to hang up; Mr. Bardolet was calling her into her office. I sat at my desk, stunned, wondering what to do.

The phone rang a few minutes later. This time it was my sister. She raked me over the coals and said I was ruining Mom’s career. I had never thought of my mother having a career or any life outside the home.

“They think Mom told you all that stuff,” she said. “She’s really in trouble over it. What are you going to do about it?”

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) isn’t just loading down a site with keywords that are repeated over and over. Sites like Google also take into account whether or not your descriptions are accurate, and even whether your business is “worthwhile” or “worthy of attention.” That’s what Sarah-Lou Morris, founder of Alfresco, told me:

“We have spent enormous time researching our competition and their key points, as well as the keywords people search for, and making sure we are sincere in our ethics. It’s important to write intelligently about your products and services in a truthful and interesting way. The search engine robots these days wander about sites sifting the “worthwhile” from the not so. Not to spend time working on getting across clearly and precisely what is being sold would be like sending in a shoddy half hearted CV to the best job in the world. The Google Robots will put you at the bottom of the pile.”

Morris has done business online since 1997 and has customers like Sir Paul McCartney, so she knows what she is talking about.

It’s interesting that I wrote about this as it was in my pre-beard days…

Part 2 is here.

When you are young, everything seems like a game—at first. How bad can the consequences be, when your parents are always there to bail you out, either literally or figuratively?

I sat with Burns in his office. He looked over the annual report. “His credentials are quite good,” he said. “He’s been an insurance investigator since 1967.”

“He has some awards on his wall,” I added.

He nodded. “Let’s try to find out what they are. The question is, what happened to his report?”

The city had not released the report. It only released a brief one-paragraph summary stating an investigation was ongoing and the loss of life was “regrettable.”

“Does your mother have a copy of the report?” he asked me over the clacking of typewriters and the rumbling of the big presses with the word GOSS on them.

I didn’t bat an eye. “I don’t know,” I said. “I can ask.”

“At least if she can tell us how long it was, how many pages. Even that would be of interest.”

On the way home, all I could think of was the fact that he had used the word “Let’s.” It felt like I was a co-conspirator in a great adult adventure.

Mom was more upset than usual when she came home from work. I knew I would not have to ask her what was going on. It would come out of her soon enough. “Mr. Bardolet was so cranky today,” she said as she spooned the mashed potatoes into a big bowl. I scowled; I could see the big lumps in them. “He just seemed mean.”

“Something’s bothering him. It doesn’t have anything to do with you,” said my sister. She had begun to work part-time at the same insurance company. “It’ll be all right.” She was always trying to smooth things over, no matter what the problem.

“You want me to waste him?” said my brother. Everything that came out of his mouth had a sense of menace and threatened violence. “Waste” was being used in some movie of the time and was the current catchphrase. We all looked at him for a second and went on eating.

“Maybe it has something to do with that report about the fire,” I ventured, maneuvering my spoon around the lumps in the potatoes. “The city never did anything with it. Maybe that’s what’s bugging him.”

“I should have never said anything about it,” said Mom.

“That was a pretty long report, though,” I said. “Do you remember how long it was?”

“Eighteen pages, it was a long one,” she said.

“Maybe you should stop asking about it,” said my brother, glaring at me.

“Yeah, Greg, Mom doesn’t want to talk about it, and besides, all the reports are confidential.”

“It’s not confidential if the report is for the city. Everything having to do with the city is a public matter.” I had heard Burns say this once. I knew I wasn’t going to get any farther with this. But I got the bit of information I needed. And that was what caused the trouble.

It was the menacing time of autumn, the time just before Halloween when the leaves all tumbled from the trees with an audible clatter on the dry pavement and frost coated the windows in the mornings when you awoke in the dark and roused yourself unwillingly from between warm sheets. After school I drove out to Northwest Highway where my mother worked in a black metal box of a building. I slammed the door and walked over in the trenchcoat I had found at the resale shop near campus.

The bare branches of the trees seemed to be waggling at me like bony fingers, saying “Don’t…don’t…” But I paid no attention to them.

Once inside, Mom showed me off like a new baby, introducing me to one suburban matron after another. It reminded me of the skit I had just seen on the British comedy show I had discovered, Monty Python. I couldn’t wait to see it every Sunday night at 9:30. The mother introduces the grown son to her doting friend, talking to him in baby talk, asking if he likes his rattle, and he says, “Mother, I’m minister for overseas development.” “Oh, he’s a clever lad!” exclaims the mother.

“Oh, is this your son who writes the column in the paper?” said Mrs. Hareball. “We read that all the time.”

“Yes,” said mom, who never missed a chance to boast about my accomplishments to her friends, “and he’s writing an article right now on…”.

I cut her off, putting a finger to my lips.

She didn’t have an office so much as a corner of someone else’s reception area. There was her IBM Selectric II typewriter, with the little ball in the middle that spun rapidly, transferring letters to sheets of paper and carbon paper. On a side table were some brochures about the insurance company. I rifled through them eagerly.

“Does this company have an annual report?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know, I’ll see…”

Just then a man in a blue pinstripe suit came through the door. “Do you have that letter ready?” he asked my mother roughly. If that had happened now, I would have told him not to talk to her like that, but at the time, I was intimidated by things like job titles and people who were older than me, so I moved out of the way.

“No, Mr. Bardolet, I’ll have it in five minutes. This is my son…”

The hard wrinkles around his eyes and the deep furrows that creased his brow faded. “Oh, hello,” he shook my hand. I thought: this is the man we are investigating. He’s a normal human being with two hands.

I took a deep breath and spoke: “I’m interested in your company,” I said. “Do you have anything like an annual report I could look at?”

“Why, sure,” he said, ducking back into his office. Once he had been distracted, mom sat down at the typewriter and hurriedly loaded paper into it. There was a moment of collusion between us.

“Here’s this year’s, and the year before,” he said when he reappeared. By this time mom had started typing. He excused himself and went to the bathroom. I sat in a chair and scanned the reports.

I was surprised to hear Burns’s deep and authoritative voice on the other end of the phone, not the hung-over slur or nasal prankster tones of my joking friends. The only phone was in the kitchen. Mom never left when you were on the phone. She shuffled between the sink, the stove, the refrigerator, eating, cleaning, moving things around. I am surprised, now that she is gone, not to see a triangular path worn into the green linoleum tile.

“Can you turn that radio down?” I asked. She clicked her tongue and turned down Newsradio 78.

“I did a little asking around about that fire in the warehouse,” he said. “There might be something to it. That building had had a fire inspection just a month before. I was wondering if you could help me with it.”

“Sure,” I said, glancing over at my mother, wishing she would leave but not saying anything.

“Find out something about her boss, the guy who made that arson report. Maybe you can get a biography of him or something? It would be in their annual report.” In those days there was no such thing as a Web site. Everything was in printed books.

“Sure,” I said, trying not to sound too excited. This was exactly what I had wanted—to work on a real news story, to participate in an investigation, to “dig up dirt,” as reporters sometimes say casually without thinking about where to put the dirt or who will get dirty.

“Find out how long he has been there and how many reports he has done. Maybe that will be in their literature somewhere.”


When I hung up, Mom left the kitchen and went into the living room. “Who was that?” she asked.

“My editor,” I said.

“Oh, is he giving you more work? It would be so good if he would give you a real full-time job instead of writing these columns once in a while.”

I let the sting of what seemed like her continual dissatisfaction with what I was doing wash over me. Far, far back in the reptilian part of my brain, a voice said: I’ll show you. I said, “Actually, he does have a job for me, to help with a story,” I said.

“That’s great!” she sat down in her recliner, a plate of pastries on her lap. “Is that something you might do all the time, so you have a regular paycheck coming in?”

“Maybe,” I said. “It’s sort of a trial.”

“Well, if that doesn’t work you should think about the insurance industry,” she said. “It’s very stable, very steady.”

I thought quickly and was pleased at the nimbleness of my mind. “Maybe I should find out about your company just in case a reporter job doesn’t open up. Maybe I should stop over there some time—this afternoon even.”

She said that would be just fine. I made a note to stop over after my classes got out, and felt like a young Woodward or Bernstein. I’ll have to buy a trenchcoat, I thought as I made a sandwich for lunch with the food my mother had purchased with the money she worked hard to make at the insurance company I was about to investigate.

An E-Commerce Sale on Facebook

October 18th, 2009

I wrote about a Facebook seller Kharisma Ryantori in an earlier column about her Facebook Kiosk. Shortly after, she made her first sale on Facebook. No, Facebook is not a store, nor should it be. But it does give enterprising people another outlet for reaching potential customers. Her store is called Popnicute; what she sold is here.

“Mr. Bardolet seemed really worried about this fire,” my mother told me. “He didn’t sound like himself.”

She didn’t seem like herself either. Instead of telling me about food that was available or asking me to get her shoes or perform some other task for her, she was confiding in me. Because I was in the newspaper, I was someone “in the know,” apparently. Suddenly, I was being treated like an adult.

It was a fire in a city-owned warehouse, where they kept old vehicles and industrial equipment. Many vehicles were lost in the blaze. In addition, one homeless man who had been sleeping in one of the buses in the warehouse had been killed. She had typed the report from one of her insurance company’s agents, who had dictated it into his dictaphone.

“He said when he went to the scene he smelled gasoline,” mom said. “He used the words ‘suspicious origin.’”

I had not heard this about the fire before. When Burns, the editor, had written about the event, it was said to have been an electrical fire. Some bit of curiosity rose inside me like a flame, the beginning of a fire. It is the curiosity that drives all reporters.

“Did he use the word ‘arson’?” I said.

“No, no…I probably shouldn’t be telling you about this,” she said. “Why don’t you eat something? You’re too thin.”

I had written one story for the main part of the newspaper, a report about a local elementary school closing. Perhaps, I thought, I could write an investigative piece about this fire, and it would help me get a job as a reporter, either at this paper or another.

When I told Burns over the phone he didn’t seem all that interested. I learned later not to take this feigned indifference too seriously. Sometimes when people seem like they aren’t really interested, they’re really intrigued. “What was this insurance guy’s name?” he asked casually. I told him. So things were set in motion, without any deep thought on my part, other than my own ambition.

[Click on the image to read the full column.]