Sunday, January 8, 2012

To Link or Not to Link - and When

Everyone wants links to their website.  You get more people happening upon your site, and you get better SERPs (search engine results placement).  More links means more eyeballs.  But there is a time when links are more trouble than they're worth.

Back in the day, everybody just linked to each other.  Remember "web rings" and link pages?  That was the beginning of SEO.  But like the rest of the Internet the perception of who links to whom has evolved.

Links to other websites have been used since 1995 to reference related content.  It made it easier for webmasters to connect content without having to duplicate it and take up space on their own server, or to reference copyrighted content that could not be legally duplicated.

When you put a link on your website to another website, you are implying an endorsement.  It's a big sign post that says, "Hey, look at this!  It's good stuff!"  If it wasn't related to your content, or beneficial to your site, you wouldn't bother.

Linking to other sites can have a downside.  It can take attention away from what you're promoting or selling.  If the linked site changes its content, it can reflect negatively on your presentation.

What if there is a conflict between the sites' purposes, regardless of the content?  For example, if the Playboy Foundation wanted to link to Dunwoody Baptist Church, would DBC benefit?  I doubt they would think so because the organizations' philosophies are so different.  Or what if a local city government wanted to link to one of their houses of worship - but only one, out of many in town.  You just ran head-first into the First Amendment, prohibiting the establishment of religion.

Dunwoody City Council is discussing adding links to community groups on its website.  (First agenda item for Monday's meeting.)  Having worked with government entities and organizations with government connections, I am very familiar with this type of situation.

The Background:  The DHA approached City Hall and requested that a link to the DHA be placed on the main page at, alongside the Chamber of Commerce and CVB.

Problem:  the entire reason for the links to the Chamber and CVB was because of an agreement between those two organizations and city government to create a "unified branding" to reinforce each other.  The DHA was not involved in this agreement.

If the City added a link to the DHA (and ONLY the DHA) in addition to the Chamber and CVB, everyone is between a rock and a hard place.  The Chamber and CVB are bound to a strict style guide in their marketing because of the branding agreement.  There are all kinds of restrictions on how they may or may not use images, logos, colors, etc in all of their materials, including the websites.  It can be a real hassle for each group to distinguish itself from City Hall.  (Ask me how I know....)

So on one side, if the DHA were to be displayed as the Chamber and CVB, they would have to be bound by the same marketing restrictions.  Since becoming more familiar with the DHA, I don't see that happening in this time-space continuum.

On the other side, if the DHA didn't have to follow the same branding style restrictions, the CVB and the Chamber would be on the phone screaming bloody murder at City Hall 2 minutes after the link appeared.

Beyond the implications of the branding project, you have the implied endorsement.  A prominent link by the City to the DHA alone implies endorsement of that organization, to the exclusion of all others.  Every other HOA in town would bristle.  How is it fair for a city government to endorse one HOA but not others?  The arguments over that scenario would make the Chicken Debacle look like a toddlers' playdate at Brook Run.

Hutmacher, in his memo associated with the recommendations (linked above) takes the right approach for any organization faced with the question of building links.  It's a good rule of thumb for any business looking to reference or endorse information outside their own website:

1)  If your business or organization is part of a larger national or international group, consult their guidelines first before adding any more that may conflict.  The memo points out that ".gov" domains have inflexible regulations on advertising private entities.  I learned about that working on websites for both M. D. Anderson (a state-funded hospital) and the DAR (a private organization that was incorporated by an Act of Congress which brings with it responsibilities for their content and the potential for intervention by the Feds.)

2)  Decide what information or content would enhance your site without competing with it. Think about what would make good reference material, or what would make your business or organization appear to be an authority on your subject.

3)  Use a legal disclaimer.  Disclaimers are the final protection between your intentions on your website and a court of law.  But it won't change the visitor's impression:  that your site is endorsing another.  Hutmacher's memo indicates a disclaimer that would absolve the City of any legal ramifications of a link to other content.  In addition, the memo outlines classes of content to be added as community organizations as a whole.  If a single link to a single HOA were added to the exclusion of all others, that would be an endorsement no matter what kind of disclaimer was posted.  But when you add all HOA's, plus houses of worship, and schools etc for good measure, that perceived endorsement is diluted.  The proposed content becomes an authoritative reference on Dunwoody life.

4)  Create a clear website policy going forward regarding the evaluation of links to outside content.  It will make your life much easier when this question comes again.  There will always be something new on the Internet (social media, anyone?) that may or may not be worth referencing.  With a clear focus on your site's goals, you can make decisions about outside links that will strengthen and reinforce your company's web presence equally and fairly even as the Internet evolves.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Business-Related Agenda Items at City Hall on Monday

Attention business owners in Dunwoody:  pay attention to the City Council agenda on January 9.  There's lots of crunchy issues that will affect many in our business community.

FIRST READ: Amendments to the Text of Chapter 27, Sections 27-183, 27-185, and 27-1321Regarding Home Occupations in the R-100 (Single-Family Residential) District and“Supplemental Regulations.” 
To review, there are several hundred home-based businesses operating inside of Dunwoody - about 20% of the licensed institutions, according to some estimates.  As of now, unless a proprietor is willing to put themselves through a merciless gauntlet of sequential meetings, city hall missteps, and occasional hysteria, a single customer may not enter a home to do business.  Enforcement is difficult as most of these companies will adopt a "don't ask, don't tell" policy of occasional customer contact and there is a double standard regarding traffic and parking between strictly "traditional" residential use and work-at-home use.

This amendment will allow customer contact by right in R-100 residential districts under conditions that will prevent business traffic (vehicle, human, etc) from exceeding that expected in an active residential community.

Given that a comprehensive zoning rewrite is on the horizon and re-evaluating zoning is always a hazard, I believe that these amendments are very fair both to non-working residential homeowners, and entrepreneurs or business owners who need to use their home for work.

Now with that said...  there is room for improvements.

For example - no one has adequately answered the question, "Why just R-100?  Why not R-75, R-50, etc?"  The city memo points out this discrepancy.  The test case that these amendments were inspired by is zoned R-50, which makes the restriction even more ironic.

Then there is this section:
(11) Home Occupations shall be limited to a maximum of 2 business related visitors at any time. Business related visitors include but are not limited to employees, business partners, contractors, subcontractors, clients, customers, students, etc.
This is new in that customers are not the only ones restricted.  Originally, the ordinance was silent on contractors, et al.  Now there is a limit 2 (or 4, depending on which version goes through).   We're still in "don't ask, don't tell" land.  Contractors for "residential purposes" are not limited.  But if you use your home for your business, and you have a contractor painting or repairing it, is that residential or business?  How would you know?  How would you enforce any penalties for the latter?  These questions can't be addressed in a mere amendment; I look forward to the thought behind the comprehensive rewrite of the zoning code.

And for today's giggle:

(18) Home occupation with customer contact shall not include the use of a dwelling unit for the purpose of operating a massage therapy, psychic, fortuneteller, tattoo, and/or body piercing establishment.
I am still waiting for any member of city government from the council on down to state with a straight face why this sentence is necessary.

There is also no condition expressly stated that would ensure that a business based in a home would remain a residence.  Not that it would ever be permitted to happen but I can just see someone trying to pull a fast one by opening a business at home, then saying, "Oopsy-daisy!  I need to expand, let's rezone to retail."  Um, no.  It's not worth the inevitable hassle and bad karma.  Just put it on the record that home-based businesses have to remain a residence first and you spare yourself a ton of drama down the road.  

I am glad to see this type of legislation finally being added and I look forward to showing the skeptics that the ~500 home-based business owners are not a threat to their homes.

2)  "Branding" (read:  redevelopment) of Georgetown

First thing you notice about these proposals is how they are awash in the currently fashionable, politically-correct buzzwords of "multi-use", "mixed use", "transit village", "transit-oriented",  "transit-friendly" "livable centers", and "(insert niche group here) - friendly" .  Once you sweep away all that static and get down to the legitimate suggestions, there's an interesting mixed bag.

Next thing you notice is that every one of these plans suggests the construction of more-than-single-family density on any piece of land available.  Townhomes are multifamily housing too, gang, so think carefully how that conflicts with the general public consensus of "no more higher-density" housing.  Either the company that created this plan thinks we're not going to notice the conflict, or they don't care.

Different pages have conflicting recommendations.  Page 24 recommends more "open spaces/parks" but elsewhere in the document, those same open spaces are recommended for some kind of housing.  Can't have it both ways.  The example of the old Shallowford ES site stands out.  Why not make this a recreational space as a buffer between the commercial and residential areas (can the gymnasium be renovated or is it beyond repair?) instead of more townhouses?  

I would be cautious about building communities on the promise of access to bus stations.  MARTA is notorious for changing schedules or deleting routes altogether.  What would happen if you built a nice community with the promise of transit access and then MARTA pulled the route?  Who is willing to gamble that much time, effort, and money when the "mass transit" draw isn't guaranteed - and why?

Page 6 of the zoning analysis is an example of what I described before as an overly-objective analysis of a business use that disregards the realities of the consumer's use of it.  They showcase an image of the Georgetown Kroger as "undesirable" because it has "parking out front" and is "auto dominated".  No kidding, Kojak!!  When shoppers go to the store to stock up, they drive their cars and they want to park out front!  Sounds pretty darn desirable to me.  Even the Dunwoody Green Market packs the parking lot with minivans and SUVs, not bicycles.  They all vie for the closest space too, no one wants to walk an extra 10 -20 feet back to their car!   This is what happens when you guide your "sounding boards" with static pictures separated from real-life property usage and elicit emotional reactions separate from their actual behavior.  I don't think the person(s) who wrote this was stupid - but they believe that we citizens are.

On the other hand, the proposal is also surprisingly specific about the business opportunities in this region.  The housing (proposed and current) will cover almost every demographic:  older seniors, younger couples and singles, and families with children.  So your potential customer demo is:  people who are alive.  About 2 miles away is Perimeter Mall and you also have Dunwoody Village nearby.  The report points out the potential competition, but also the opportunity for a different business approach.  The opportunity is ripe for businesses that are:
a)  small enough to not be able to afford rent at the Perimeter
b)  large enough to require a storefront
c)  not currently available in Dunwoody Village
d)  can market to any of the above age demographics and/or their subgroups
e)  is locally owned to appeal to the community spirit.

See page 49 ("Retail Targets") and the "Detailed Market Assesment Report".  Not only does it line up the dots, it connects them for you.  IMHO, best part of the whole report.  

Local entrepreneurs and niche marketers rejoice - this is your place!

BTW - "Branding" takes up only a couple of paragraphs and finally gets mentioned on page 52.  In general I am not impressed with a lot of the suggestions because of the "buzzword bingo" mentioned above but I do believe they are on track with suggestions of a focal point in the PVC farm.  This *is* the place to elicit a positive emotional bond - like The Farmhouse in Dunwoody Village.  IMHO, it's a good idea to have some kind of symbol and expression of pride in every commercial center in town.  The Farmhouse will always be "THE" emotional heart of the city but if you strengthen the identity of other centers as well, the whole city will benefit.  Don't underestimate the value of symbolism in this process.

That's enough for one day.  Back to work!

Monday, January 2, 2012

World Peace

Ran across this while sorting files on my server.  From Snowpocalypse 2011.  Just seemed appropriate.