Do You Even Need a Style Guide? Not Necessarily

What’s the proper way to make an apple pie? Are they shredded, diced, or sliced apples? Do you make your own crust or buy pre-made crusts? Do you have a fancy lattice top or the Dutch apple crumble top?

And whose recipe do you follow? Is it the first one you Googled, or is it Memaw’s secret family recipe handed down from generation to generation?

Ask this question on Facebook, and you’ll have plenty of strong opinions from plenty of people, and about 12 back-and-forth arguments before someone is calling someone else a Nazi.

Style Guides Are Like Apple Pies

This is how people, especially writers, feel about their style guides.

Different style guide examples. It's hard to choose the right one.To them, their style guide is the One True Guide, their Bible about how issues and misunderstandings about language, punctuation, and even grammar are to be handled.

There are a few dozen style guides, including ones from the Associated Press, Chicago Manual of Style, American Psychological Association, Modern Language Association, Turabian, Council of Science Editors, and even The Elements of Style.

And you’ll find outspoken proponents of every one of them.

Each person will insist that their style guide is the right one and will argue with those heathens who don’t agree to worship The One True Guide.

Except there’s no One True Guide.

No one is able to lay claim that their guide is the definitive way to punctuate sentences, abbreviate states, or denote time (a.m./p.m. versus AM/PM).

(But you can have my Oxford comma when you pry it from my cold, stiff, and dead fingers, Associated Press!)

Each guide is assembled by learned editors who have heated discussions about each new entry and change in their guide.

They’ve discussed and debated new issues as they come up, they look at how language is being used and written in society, and they update the guides to reflect those changes when necessary.

In May 2012, the Associated Press said they would no longer object to using the word ‘hopefully’ at the beginning of a sentence, rather than making people say ‘I am hopeful’ or ‘It is hoped that.’

People went nuts. They howled in protest, they screamed and tore their garments, and the Internet burned for three days. People said they were going to die on this hill and they weren’t going to let any stupid Associated Press tell them how to use English when Mrs. Kugelschreiber had drummed this rule into them so many years ago. They were going to stick with the “right” way to do it, despite what these so-called experts said.

Ahh, innocent times.

Of course, the angry mob missed two important points:

  1. It was a made-up rule to begin, having been created in the 1960s. Before then, it was acceptable to start sentences with “hopefully.” Besides, there’s no rule about starting sentences with other floating sentence adverbs like “sadly,” “unfortunately,” and “surprisingly,” so this one was just something people latched onto without understanding why.
  2. The rule only applied to writers and editors who worked for the Associated Press. It had nothing to do with general language usage. People were free to start or not start sentences with “hopefully” to their heart’s content.

This is the important thing to remember about style guides: While these are prescriptive guides, they are by no means the official rules for The Way English Is Done. These guides are only for a particular job, field, or organization.

The Associated Press Stylebook tells writers about the rules they must follow when writing for the Associated Press, although many non-AP journalists use it. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage is only meant for writers and editors at the New York Times. The APA Publication Manual from the American Psychological Association is written for academics in social sciences, like psychology, speech communication, linguistics, and sociology.

And if you’re not part of those organizations, you are not bound by those rules.

Which Style Guide Should I Use?

Bloggers and content marketers can argue about which style guide is the best, but there’s no right answer. I always recommend bloggers use the AP Stylebook, because it’s small, inexpensive, and addresses 95% of our issues.

I also like the AP Stylebook because many bloggers act as citizen journalists, which means we should follow the guide that most other journalists use.

However, there’s no real guide for bloggers to use. We’re free to pick and choose, but we do so voluntarily, not because there’s an official Way English Is Done.

Bottom line: As long as you spell words right and put them in the right order, the rest is up to you. The benefit of a style guide is that it helps you be consistent throughout your writing. It means you always know where to put punctuation, whether you’re going to follow the postal abbreviations for U.S. states, and how to capitalize headlines.

And whether you should use the Oxford Comma or if you’re a filthy, godless monster.

This means you can pick one you like the best and are most familiar with, or you can even create your own style guide. Just make sure you follow it consistently and apply it to all of your business writing — blog articles, web copy, brochures, emails, letters, and even internal communications.

Photo credit: FixedAndFrailing (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

Do Content Marketers Need to Know Their Flesch-Kincaid Score?

Straightforward exposition entices additional positive behavior. (That’s terrible.)

Simple writing converts better. (Pretty good.)

Short words sell good. (Too much, too much! Pull back!)

Content marketers, if you want your sales copy to generate more leads, it needs to be simple. It has to be good, it has to be interesting, and most of all, it has to be simple.

I would also argue it needs to be interesting, but that’s for a different article. Plus, there’s no software that can really measure that, although Google’s Time On Site and bounce rate stats may be a step in that direction.

As Neil Patel wrote on the Content Marketing Institute,

When users don’t like your content, Google doesn’t either. It works like this. A user accesses your website and decides (in a few seconds) whether she likes it. If she doesn’t like it, she bounces. Google records this information – short visit, then departure – for future reference.

Another user does the same thing – quick visit; then bounce. Another user does the same thing. And another.

Google gets the idea. Your website isn’t satisfying users. They aren’t engaging with it.

Google decides that your website doesn’t need to be ranking as high, and you start to slip in the Search Engine Result Pages.

So if you want your content to be accessible, it needs to be easy to read. If it’s easier to read, people are more likely to stick around for more than a few seconds.

There are plenty of other factors to consider — page layout, use of sub-heads, use of white space — but the number one factor for a readable, accessible page is the simplicity of the language.

Content Marketers, Know Thy Flesch-Kincaid Score

If you want to know whether your writing is simple or not, you need to know your Flesh-Kincaid score. Specifically, your Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Formula.

This is the score that represents the readability of a piece of text at a U.S. grade level, so it’s easier for teachers and parents to know how hard or easy something is to read. It basically matches up to the grade reading level required to understand the text. If you get a Flesch-Kincaid score of 8, your reader needs to be at an 8th grade reading level to understand it.

Hunter S. Thompson, Miami Bookfair International, 1988I checked out a few different writing samples to compare their Flesch-Kincaid Grade Levels.

Most mainstream newspapers are written at a 6th grade reading level, USA today notwithstanding. Other USA Today stories I checked ran between 10th and 13th grade, thanks to complex and long sentence structures, not overly complex words. That suggests problems with editing, not word choice. And I’ve found that most business writing clocks in at a 7th and 8th grade reading level

It’s not that our readers are stupid, or only have an 8th grade reading level, it’s that people don’t want to put a lot of mental bandwidth into deciphering more complex and convoluted articles. They don’t want to slog through a complex, jargon-filled multi-syllabic narrative. They want to read something easy.

And if your content is easy to read, they’re going to read it. If it’s not, they won’t.

How to Measure Your Flesch-Kincaid Score

There are a few ways you can measure your Flesch-Kincaid score. Microsoft Word users have that functionality built right in, so it’s easy to find. (Check the Show readability statistics box in your Spelling and Grammar preferences.)

For Apple users, use the Hemingway app, which you can use to identify not only your grade level, but the number of adverbs, uses of passive voice, and sentences that are hard to read and very hard to read (like this one). You can use the Hemingway app on their website, but I bought the $19.99 version on the Apple store. (It’s available for Windows as well.)

The problem with the Hemingway app is that they don’t give you decimalized grade levels though. If you want that extra accuracy, you can use the Readability Test Tool by WebPageFX. That’s the tool I used to get the scores above. My other complaint about the Hemingway app is that it doesn’t ignore html text; the Readability Test Tool does.

Content marketers, if you want your readers to stick around and read your work, it needs to be easy. Try to keep it at a 7th grade reading level or lower. That means concise words, succinct sentences, and compressed paragraphs. (That’s terrible.)

Sorry, I mean short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. (Ah, much better.)

Photo credit:

5 Ways to Protect Your Blog Against Hackers

Every couple of days, I get an email from my blog alerting me that the zombie hackers are at it again. They’re trying to break into my WordPress blog so they can infect it or steal any financial or personal information they find.

But I’ve taken a few steps to limit their access, and if you’ve got a blog, WordPress or otherwise, you should take these five steps to protect yourself from hackers.

1. Change the Admin Account

Raise the PortcullisThe default username on all new blogs is “Admin,” which most people never change. That’s what the hackers attacking my blog seem to go after the most. To protect against that, you can do one of two things:

  1. Delete the Admin account. WAIT!! Don’t go do it yet. First, make sure you set up a new admin-level account under a different name. Use a variation of your name instead. Once you do that, then delete the admin account. The hackers’ automated system will keep trying to break into “admin,” even though it’s no longer there.
  2. Change Admin’s role to subscriber-level. Again, you’ll want to have your own admin account first, but by changing the role to that of a subscriber, even if someone gets in, they won’t have the power to add any code or change anything. The best, most thorough option is deleting the Admin account completely.

“Test” is another name I’m seeing a lot of in my email alerts, so don’t set up an admin account with that name.

2. Change your Password

Hopefully you’re no longer doing things like using “password” or your dog’s name as your password. But even if you’re using variations like “p@ssword” or “#enry,” those won’t work either. The hackers are on to our little tricks of substituting @’s for A’s, and so on.

Instead, pick longer multi-word password phrases like “ILeftMyHeartInSanFrancisco” or “ILikeNewYorkInJuneHowAboutYou.” Even though these don’t use the unique symbols we were told to use a few years ago, they’re almost too long to be easily cracked. Another option is to just mash a bunch of keys at random and then store the password in a password vault on your laptop.

3. Delete Subscribers (WordPress)

One trick you can do to reduce comment spam is to only allow subscribers to leave comments. In order to do that, the spammers will have to subscribe to a blog before they leave a spam-laden comment. And since it’s easy to automate, that’s exactly what they do.

However I don’t require commenters to subscribe (more on that in a moment). I let Akismet catch a lot of the comment spam, and let the real humans leave real comments. Instead, I moderate comments, and check over all the comments Akismet let pass before I publish them, because Akismet is 99% accurate. I just have to monitor the other 1% myself.

But even though I don’t require comments, spammers still subscribe to my blog, and I’ll have a couple thousand every few weeks or so. I go through and delete them whenever I have a few free minutes.

Now, the danger is a real commenter may have actually subscribed, and I will — completely unintentionally and accidentally, because I’m not reviewing every single subscriber first — delete them and their comment. This is why I don’t require commenters to subscribe. Otherwise I’d have no comments at all. (So, if you’re a real person and you want to leave a comment, DON’T SUBSCRIBE!)

Delete Subscribers window

Note: If you do this, make sure you click the Subscriber link each time you delete a batch. Otherwise you might actually delete yourself or another admin. Also, set the number of records that show on one page to about 350. That’s about as many as you can delete without causing an error.

4. Install Limit Login Attempts Plugin (WordPress)

Limit Login Attempts (LLA) is a great plugin for any WordPress owner. It limits the number of times an IP address can try to log in unsuccessfully before they’re locked out. It lets you set how many unsuccessful attempts you’ll allow before the IP address is locked out, and how long the lockout lasts. Then, if a specific number of lockouts are reached, the IP address is blocked for a specific amount of time.

For example, I have mine set to 3 unsuccessful attempts lead to a 24 hour lockout. 4 lockouts lead to a 96 hour block. I’ve also set LLA to email me after there are 4 lockouts. Most of these attempts have synced up over the past several months, so I get a new round of emails every 4 days (today was the day, which made me decide to write this post).

5. Install WP-Ban Plugin (WordPress)

If you do find an IP address that’s managed to guess your user name, or see one that continues to try to log in a few dozen times, it may only be a matter of time before they get in. (If nothing else, the one that’s tried a few dozen times is a bot that just keeps knocking on the door, coming back whenever it can to see if they’re unlocked). To fight this, I installed the WP-Ban plugin on my WordPress blog, as well as those of my clients, and I use it to block IP addresses that are most persistent.

Unfortunately, it’s a Sisyphean task, since the IP addresses are constantly changing. I always block the IP addresses that manage to figure out my user name, and I block the ones that have been hit with a 96 hour lockout more than 3 times. I can find that out by looking at the IP addresses that were blocked by the LLA plugin, because it shows the user name they tried and the number of attempts. There are a couple of IP addresses that have seen the Ban message 1,811 and 1,421 times, so it is worth it to ban them.

Blog security is an ongoing issue. For every hack they find, we find a solution. For every solution we find, they find a workaround. This day, these are the five things I rely on to prevent hacking into my blog. What other solutions do you use? Do you have any tricks? What about for non-WordPress blogs? Leave a comment and let me know what works well for you.

(Hat tip to good friend Lorraine Ball and Roundpeg for originally writing about this topic in April.)

Photo credit: Dark Dwarf (Flickr, Creative Commons)

6 Benefits of Evernote for Bloggers (GUEST POST)

Whether you blog about marketing or cooking, Evernote has a lot to offer. As a suite of software and services focused on “notes,” Evernote gives you a tool to save any information you need, from sentences and photographs to webpages and voice memos. It syncs info across devices, makes organization easy, and saves you time. Have you thought about all the ways this tool can benefit bloggers? You should. Here are six specific ways to use Evernote to improve your blogging efforts:

Evernote Blog Template1. Build Common Templates: If you’re like most bloggers, you write posts that follow specific formats. For food bloggers, that might mean photos with text, followed by a list of ingredients and a list of directions. For business bloggers, that might mean an introduction, followed by main points in an outline. Whatever the case, if you use a common format, why not create a template that you can easily copy from and fill in when you write new posts? This makes your writing more efficient and your processes simpler.

2. Save Post Ideas as Notes: Make it easy to track ideas for blog post topics by saving them in Evernote as notes, with as much information as you can at the time. Whether you save the idea on your phone while you’re on the go, or on your computer while you work, the ideas get saved in one single place. Anywhere you access your Evernote account, you’ll find them. This means when you start writing a new post, you don’t have to waste time trying to drum up new topics or wrack your brain looking for that idea you had earlier: They’re all saved and waiting for you.

Evernote Blog Drafts3. Write Blog Drafts: Maybe you don’t have time to write a whole blog post, but you’ve got several topic ideas stored in Evernote and a half hour to kill. Start writing a rough draft for one of the topics and keep it saved there. When you are ready to publish a post, most of the work will already be done for you.

4. Save Inspirations: Read an article that you’d like to reference later? Save it to Evernote. Find a blogger who inspires you? Save the link to Evernote. With Evernote, you have an easy way to clip quotes, emails, Tweets, photos, links, articles, and more—all in one streamlined place. If you tag all of these notes with the same tag, like “inspirations,” for example, finding them is as simple as searching that word or phrase.

Evernote Stay Motivated Notebook5. Share Ideas with Co-Bloggers: If you blog with other authors, make it easy to share ideas with each other by doing it through Evernote. The tool lets you share all content publicly or share it particularly with the people you select on social networks or via email.

6. Stay Motivated: There’s a reason so many bloggers abandon their sites over time—without regular encouragement or results of some kind, blogging can get discouraging. Be proactive against these feelings by setting up a note dubbed “Encouragement” or “Comments from fans.” Whenever a reader emails or comments with an encouraging word, save it in your note. Then, when you face those feelings of inadequacy or frustration, remind yourself of what’s been good.

Your Thoughts

Do you already use Evernote? Why or why not? If you’re looking for a way to stay more organized and productive, there’s no better time to try Evernote than now. Download Evernote to your devices at today.

Guest author Shanna Mallon is a writer for Straight North, a Web development company with headquarters in Chicago, providing SEO, Web development and other online marketing services to B2B clients.

Five Things To Stop Putting In Your Press Releases

Press releases are one of those not-dead-yet tools that lazy PR professionals still insist on sending out to hundreds and thousands of journalists and bloggers. I still get press releases for movie releases taking place in L.A., inviting me to attend the red carpet rollout of some indie movie. Clearly they’re not culling their lists.

When I did crisis communication, we got a real sense of pride if one of our releases was published verbatim, or nearly so, by our state newspapers. That’s how we knew the real journalists were taking us seriously. That, and our success rate (it was an outstanding day if you could bat .500 on story placement). To do it, we needed solid, tight news stories, not a marketing puff piece.

Many releases I see are just abysmal. I don’t know if the agencies are teaching young flaks the wrong way, or if they’re teaching it in college, but there are some serious errors that are keeping your stories from getting published at all. Here are five things you need to stop putting in your press releases.

1. Marketing copy, especially in the opening paragraph

“ABC Coffee Stirrers, the leader in the coffee stirring industry since 1978 and the developer of the Turbo-Whoosh titanium stirrer, is pleased to announce the acquisition of Global Stirrings, a Canadian coffee stirrer manufacturer.”

Do you see all that dreck? All that extra crap about ABC’s history? That’s amateur hour. That stuff goes at the end of the press release in the <H2>About ABC Coffee Stirrers</H2> section. You know, the part nobody reads. It’s going to get cut out anyway, because journalists like real openings, not a copy-and-paste of your About Us page. When you write that, you sound like a flak, not a journalist, and the editor may pitch the release out of spite and loathing.

2. Adverbs, adjectives, and competitive language

“ABC Coffee Stirrers have proved to be 33% more effective at mixing a coffee drinker’s cream and sugar into their beloved morning java. And customers have eagerly demonstrated their strong preference for the Turbo-Whoosh by increasing sales by a staggering 12% every year for the last five years!”

Newspapers and TV stations are supposed to present the news in an unbiased, objective manner. That means they don’t get to express their opinion. They don’t get to say whether something is good or bad. They typically don’t talk about products, unless those products killed someone.

That means they’re not going to talk about how much better your product is than anyone else’s. They’re not going to publish the “news” written by your product manager. And they’re not going to talk about increased sales, customer preference, or improved performance.

You may get that kind of coverage in trade and industry journals, but you still need to avoid the adverbs and adjectives. If your press release sounds like a freshman English Comp essay, pitch it and start over.

3. Copyright and Trademark symbols

The company lawyer may have told you to put them in the release, but the ®, ©, and ™ symbols don’t belong in press releases for two simple reasons:

  1. They could interfere with SEO. While we can’t be sure how Google treats these, why risk it? Maybe they ignore those symbols, but maybe they treat it like a regular word. No one is going to search for ABC™ Coffee Stirrers®, so don’t make that a search term.
  2. Those don’t appear in news stories. The editors are going to delete them anyway, so don’t make extra work for them or you.

Unless the company lawyer also has a background as a journalist, ignore anything they tell you about writing press releases.

3. “We’re very excited” quotes

“We’re very excited about the merger between our companies.”

“We’re very excited about our laptop upgrades.

You can’t be equally excited about both things. Saying “we’re very excited” about every damn thing that happens is either lazy writing, or your CEO is off her meds. Find another way to express interest or enthusiasm. Better yet, don’t even bring it up at all. We all know you didn’t interview the CEO for this, and if you did, she probably didn’t say this at all.

Talk about the benefits of the news item. Is the merger going to add jobs? That’s your lead quote. Is it going to improve profitability by $10 million? Then that is. No one cares who’s excited; that’s not news. The jobs and profitability are exciting. Only include things that drive the story.

4. Business jargon quotes

“This new relationship will help us streamline mission-critical functionalities as a way to regenerate impactful niches.”

No one talks that way in real life. If they do, make sure they aren’t having a stroke.

But even if they do, preserve their reputation and avoid marketing words altogether. Make them sound like a real human being since, not a marketing textbook.

(Note: It’s easy to confuse marketers with real human beings, but do your best. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and translate their marketing gobbledygook into real words.)

If you don’t have good quotes, the journalist will either email you or call you for a follow-up quote that uses real words. Save them the time and give them a quote that sounds realistic and not one made up by the Bullshit Generator (which is what I used to write that sentence above).

A press release is supposed to sound like a real news story written by a real journalist. Most PR flaks don’t know what that looks like, so they keep putting out the same garbage week after week. Then they complain that their stories aren’t being published and that their clients aren’t getting any traction. Start writing real journalistic stories and send out only newsworthy items. You’ll see your success rate — and self-respect — increase.

Content Marketing Versus SEO: Epic Rap Battles of Geekery

Let’s be honest, your customers think about you as often as you think about your own vendors.

Not at all.

You are not the first thing on your customers’ minds when they wake up in the morning, you’re not the last thing they think about when they go to bed, and you didn’t pop up anywhere in between either.

Your customers have a job to do, and they’re focused on getting it done. And until that thing you sell breaks or runs out, they don’t give you a second thought.

Which means, all your work and worry about being a thought leader in your industry, and writing blog posts that they’ll love and read aloud during departmental meetings before they’re posted on the break room fridge has all been for naught.

“But, but. . . the guy who wrote that book said we should do that. He said people were craving my content!”

Okay, yeah, I said that. But did you think about me at all until just now?

Let’s try this again: how much did you think about your middle-of-the-road vendor? Not the person who sells you your raw materials — the coffee for the coffee shop, or the #10 envelopes for the direct mail company — but the person who does the stuff you don’t think about until the bill comes in the mail?

Do you really think about your floor mats at the front door of your coffee shop? Do you yearn to read a 300th blog post on best accounting practices for direct marketing companies?

So why should your customers care about you?

They don’t. And you should stop caring about them. Stop writing for them. Stop trying to impress them. They’re the pretty girl from 5th grade who said you were best friends, but you had to be secret best friends.

They aren’t the ones you should be writing for.

You need to focus on the searchers. The people who are cruising Google and Bing trying to find a solution to their problems. Those are the people who have been coming to your website.

Don’t believe me? Check your Google Analytics, and see what percentage of returning visitors you have to your website. If it’s more than 50%, I’ll buy you lunch.

Everyone else, the remaining 85 – 90% (come on, who are we kidding?) are new visitors. They came there because they found you on one of the search engines, or they saw your blog post on Twitter, or a friend forwarded it to them on LinkedIn or Facebook.

That’s who you need to impress. They’re not your customers, but if you play your cards right, they could be.

Returning Visitor stats

If these people came from search engine traffic, what the hell are they searching for?! I write jokes about boogers and the Oxford comma!

Content Marketing + SEO = Big Dreamy Marketing Love

There’s been a big Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots argument in the online marketing world about which is more important, content marketing or SEO.

(It’s content marketing, but I say that with an asterisk.)

The debate comes down to this:

SEO pros: If it wasn’t for us, no one would know how to find you.
Content marketers: Oh yeah? If it wasn’t for us, you wouldn’t have anything decent to optimize. Not that that’s stopped you before.
SEO pros: Jerk!
Content marketers: Fartface!

Clearly — because I hate seeing the grown-ups fight — one is going to always beget the other, like a snake eating its tail. You can’t have SEO without content, but no one is going to find your content without SEO.

(Here’s the asterisk)* If I had to choose, I would always choose content, because you at least have a chance of people stumbling upon it. My No Bullshit Social Media co-author Jason Falls did not optimize any of his content until last spring, and still managed to garner as many as 30,000 site visitors per month, by writing good stuff. Compare that to a Midwest SEO pro we know who could barely crack 10,000. He also frequently has 50%+ returning visitors, and yes, I already bought him lunch.

So What Does That Mean For My Content Marketing?

It means write for search, but write well. It means produce your absolute best work, and then make sure people can find it.

The problem with an SEO-only strategy is that while it brings in visitors, none of them stick around and buy anything, because the content is crap.

That means, flex those writing muscles, and be a content superstar. Write the best content you can. Mold history, shape the world, change lives with your very words. As your analytics showed you, you’ve got one shot at impressing your visitors. Just because they showed up doesn’t guarantee they’ll be back. So give them your A material, and hope it’s enough to get them into your sales funnel, so you can turn them into regular paying customers, or get them to join the small percentage of people who read all of your content (and are not your mother).

So they can forget all about you too, until that thing you sell breaks or runs out.

Google’s Search Results Don’t Paint an Accurate Picture

You can’t trust your Google search results. They’re biased, and they don’t reflect the true reality of what everyone else sees.

“But Google’s, well, Google! It’s the biggest search engine in all the world! What do you mean, we can’t trust it?”

You can’t trust Google’s results, because it’s trying to be so helpful and useful to you.

Let’s say you need to find someone to build a deck for your house. You go to Google, and do a search for “deck builder.” The results that pop up will be all kinds of deck builders within a 10 – 20 mile radius of where you happen to be sitting at that moment. That’s because Google can tell where you are. And if you’re logged in to your Gmail or YouTube account at the same time, Google even knows who you’re connected to.

Google search for Deck Builder in north Indianapolis, IN

That means the results you see are based on your location and who Google thinks you’ll want to talk to. It will even show you a little map of all the deck builders in relation to where you’re sitting.

This is a useful little feature that Google has, because they figure you want to see the deck builders who are closest to you, and not the ones who have the best optimized website but are 1,000 miles away.

Want to See the Real Results?

But what if you want to get a more accurate picture about what Google “really” ranks as #1? Maybe you’re doing a national search for some company or manufacturer, and you’re not as concerned about whether they’re 10 miles away.

For this, you would do an anonymous search, where Google doesn’t know it’s you. On your web browser, open an Incognito or Private browsing session (look in the File menu). That turns off all cookies and identifiers so Google and every other website doesn’t know who you are and won’t track you. Now do the same search.

You should see some different results. In fact, depending on your search terms and your location, you’ll see some wildly different results.

That’s because Google doesn’t know a thing about you. They’re showing results that anyone who’s not signed in to Google would see. They’re as close to objective, unbiased results as you’re going to get. But even then, Google is trying to figure out where you are, so it can try to give you the results you would most likely want.

Do that deck builder search in an Incognito search, and chances are, you’ll still see the local results, but the rankings will be different. Some pages will drop and other pages will appear, but they may still be locally-focused.

Take that one step further: Do the same search while you’re sitting in a hotel room on a business trip, and Google won’t show you deck builders in your area. They’ll show you deck builders within 20 miles of your hotel room. (Google knows where you are, based on your IP address, which it can pinpoint to your physical location.)

Again, that’s because Google wants to be as helpful as possible. They want to show you the results closest to you, and the results all your Google+ friends have shared or created themselves.

Why This Is Bad for Businesses

This creates a serious problem for businesses who do this to check their Google search rank. The first thing an eager marketer will do is search for their best keywords to see where their own website ranks.

And, because Google is so helpful and kind, it figures, “A-ha, Shelly wants to see her website. Let’s show it to her!” and places her little website at the top of the search results page, where it outranks giant mega-companies who have been doing this for years.

WE WON GOOGLE!” Shelly hollers at the top of her lungs, running around the office, high-fiving everyone.

Then, because she’s eager to show her husband how awesome she and her web team have been, she makes the 30 mile commute home, pops open his laptop, and does the same search only to find that in a few short hours, her company website has dropped from 1st to 87th.

It only gets worse when she goes back to work, checks again, and sees she’s winning Google once more.

You’re Not Really First

This is a problem for anyone who relies on Google search results to see how their search engine optimization and website design are performing. They get lulled into a false sense of security by Google’s personalized results, and slack off their SEO. And without realizing it, they slip lower and lower in the real, objective results, disappearing from everyone’s view except for their own.

If you want to get a real idea of how well you’re doing, you need a Google rank checker like WebCEO, which will check the actual rankings and tell you where you reallyrank for your chosen keywords.

This is true whether you’re doing the searches for your company, or even your own name (very handy for a job search, because it tells you what the recruiters and hiring managers will see).

In its efforts to be as helpful as possible, Google has inadvertently tricked us and lulled us into a false sense of success, which creates problems for us that we’re not even aware of.

But rather than rest on your laurels, you need to keep track of how things are really going for you. Use a rank checking website like WebCEO, and run a report at least once a month. Then, focus on new SEO techniques — a regular blog, social media promotion, submitting blog posts to Google+ — that can help move you up in the actual rankings.

Ultimately, you may end up getting your personalized search and actual search rankings to match up.