Sethgate: Reed's Cargo Cult Blogging

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Last Friday was not a good day to be milling around at a conference with a badge saying “Reed Business” on it. Why? Because people kept asking me about this hard hitting post by Seth Godin. I’d advise you to go and read Seth’s post before continuing here, because it really does set the context for what I’m going to say. The short version of it is this: someone, within the wide and deep corporate structure that is Reed Elsevier, has been sending some ill-advised e-mails asking for reciprocal links.

If you want to visualise my reaction, imagine me bashing my head against a desk. Repeatedly. Got that? Good, let’s move on.

Now, Reed Business Information is a division of Reed Elsevier, and, as head of blogging for the UK branch of the organisation, you can see why people kept asking me if I was responsible. And the answer, of course, is “no”. This is not something that I would suggest to any of our bloggers and which I would actively discourage them from doing. With a stick. A big stick.

Seth characterises what happened as:

Translation: it fits our business model to be ranked highly, so we’ll go ahead and cheat to get there.

Which is, indeed, exactly how it appears. However, whichever branch of our business did this, I suspect that they have absolutely no idea at all that this is cheating. While chatting to Rachel about this at Blogher, I described it as “cargo cult” blogging – knowing the form of what blogging should look like, and attempting to recreate it without understanding how it actually works. And that’s exactly what’s happening in many businesses right now. This doesn’t in any way *excuse *what they did, but it does, at least, *explain *it.
Yes, blogging has registered on the mainstream media’s radar as something important. Yes, journalists are being forced into blogging and link-building because, in the age of Google, isolated content might as well not exist. The problem is that, all too often, both the people making the decisions and those implementing it don’t really understand what they’re doing. They haven’t been blogging long, if they have at all, and they certainly haven’t been reading blogs. Usually, they’ve been too busy on the treadmill of publishing magazines. They’re used to being big fish. Now they’re small fish in a much larger, much more dangerous and, fundamentally, much more interesting pond. And that’s hard for them – especially when, somewhere in their heads, they’re still big fish.

In a sense, I’m profoundly lucky. I’ve been blogging since 2001 (you can still see my very first, and completely rubbish, blog post on my Livejournal). I’ve taken my lumps, learnt with the community and come to love blogging and the whole experience around it. I understand that links have to be earned and arise organically out of writing stuff that other people want to interact with. I read RSS feeds from hundreds of blogs every day. I am, to be brutally honest, a blog addict. *(RSS-oholics Anonymous: “Hello. My name’s Adam, and I have 679 feeds in my feed reader.” *applause “Welcome, Adam.”) So, when I got sucked away from my job as features editor on Estates Gazette to head up our blogging efforts, I at least had some idea of what not to do.

I’m doing my level best to get our journalists-turned-bloggers to understand all this stuff, too. To work with the blogging communities around their subject area. To join in the conversation as an equal participant. And, so far, it’s working.

Equally, I’m also surrounded and working for and with people who have a clue: Andrew, Karl, Jim, Piers and Ciaran (who also posted about this on SEOmoz), amongst others. Some of our bloggers like Simon, Kevin and Tim (to pick a pretty random selection) are doing excellent work.

But, just as journalists often characterise bloggers as one amorphous mass, bloggers have a habit of characterising businesses as one big mass of like-thinking drones. And really, we’re not. Levels of understanding, enthusiasm and cluefulness vary wildly even in the same building, let alone across the corporate division divide. And to dismiss the efforts of a large organisation on the basis of mistakes made by a few isn’t fair.

Yes, mistakes have been made, and will continue to be made. That doesn’t mean that those people who are employed full time to research and understand certain subjects (which is what most professional journalists fundamentally are) don’t have something to add to the conversation.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.