Sometimes Your Content is TOO Evergreen

A closeup shot of pine leaves on an evergreen tree.

Evergreen content is often viewed as the perfect Web marketing content. It seldom needs to be updated and attracts traffic year after year. But what should you do when you no longer need the traffic?

As a Web marketer you eventually find yourself talking about “evergreen content” with people.  Maybe you are giving a presentation, writing a tutorial, in a meeting with a business decision-maker, or perhaps just passing time in a bar with your Web marketing friends.  You cannot exist in Web marketing today without someone mentioning these words to you.  In fact, evergreen content is one of those objectionable goals that marketers dangle in front of prospects, clients, and business leaders.

What makes it objectionable is the lack of a proper standard definition for “evergreen content”.  Everyone has an opinion on what evergreen content is supposed to be (typically some variation on “content you almost never have to update or replace”) but when it comes time to produce it or identify it, your small set of rules quickly breaks down.  It’s not so easy to get everyone to agree that anything in particular is evergreen.

If it’s relevant today, next year, and two years from now that is no guarantee that it will be relevant in ten years.  As someone whose daily goal is to produce content that will be relevant in ten years, I assure you it’s not easy to create that content every day.  But the search engines make this task even more difficult because their algorithms tend to latch onto popular content and keep serving it up year after year long after it has lost its relevance.

This is great if you want to run ads on a Website.  It’s not so great if you want the search engines to pay more attention to what you wrote yesterday than five years ago.  As the years rolled by I found myself updating Xenite.Org just for the sake of tricking the search engines into identifying more recent content as better than the old stuff they wanted to promote.  I don’t have to do that so much now but that is because I have less content to worry about.

Xenite.Org Turned 20 Years Old Today

Officially, technically, and within my living memory I launched my first Website in August 1996 but it was not hosted on its own domain.  A domain registration cost $25 a year at the time and I honestly did not want to spend that much money.  That $25 always found something else for me to buy: some movie tickets, video tapes I no longer own, whatever.  But as I fell prey to Website Building Syndrome it became clear I needed to consolidate all my sites onto one domain because sooner or later I would run out of cheap, free places to stick Websites.  And by the time I had four sites online I realized I was creating a mess.

So I spent the $25 and registered Xenite.Org in March 1997.  If you have some time to kill, you can read all about my adventures on Xenite.Org in this 20th anniversary retrospective that I published earlier today.  But we don’t have to recap all that stuff here.

Today’s Xenite.Org Is Nothing Like the Old Xenite.Org

Although Xenite still receives over half a million visitors every year, 17-18 years ago it was receiving around 3,000,000 visitors a year.  That was pretty good by my standards, although I knew people whose fan sites were bringing in 10,000,000+ visitors per year.  It used to bother me to see those numbers, but it also motivated me to do something to make my own site brilliant, interesting, and entertaining.

We developed our own CMS, wrote our own forum software, recruited volunteer editors and writers, and did everything we could think of to make Xenite.Org a huge mega fan site.  It worked very well.  People were impressed with how much traffic we earned.  They were also amazed that Xenite made so little money.  We tried to monetize it a few times but every time we started to make a few hundred dollars a month whatever resource we had committed to went out of business or changed its business model.  After a few years of this nonsense I just got fed up and stopped trying to monetize the site.

Today we run AdSense and some Amazon ads on Xenite, maybe the occasional other ad.  I try not to overthink it.

But there was a time when I would publish content for which I desired no ads whatsoever.  I wanted a “clean magazine” look and feel.

What Does a Magazine Website Look Like?

I was one of those old school guys who wanted his Website to look like the pages of a magazine.  I could never quite pull that off until I decided in 2005 to create a very special section of content.  This became one of Xenite’s most popular sections but when I relaunched the site in June 2011 I decided not to bring back this section.  Why?  Because it was too evergreen for my own good.

It looked okay, almost magazine like.  In fact, I wrote about 50 pages of articles based on interviews with people across the city of Houston.  And to add to the magazine effect I created a “splash page” with a ten-second timeout to serve as an introduction to the section.  Even in 2005 this was considered bad marketing but I wanted to prove that you could get away with a splash page, even promote it well in search results.  And it worked.

Splash page for 'Hot Magic Nights' section on Xenite.Org.

Splash page for ‘Hot Magic Nights’ section on Xenite.Org. It was somewhat larger but looked no better than this.

Today, thanks to “mobile Web design”, splash pages are all the rage.  Most modern (I should say “contemporary”) themes for WordPress Websites waste an entire screen shot on large (sometimes animated) images.  A more useless practice in Web design I cannot imagine.  The marketers who fought against this user-unfriendly style have now abandoned all hope.  Many of them have left the business.  I think sites are hard to use and look terrible.  And good luck gleaning information from these text-poor pages.  The worst offenders are the sites that just throw a few pull quotes on the page and make you scrollscroll, and scroll some more before you reach the end of a five-page layout that says absolutely nothing useful.  It may not be informative but it probably looked great on someone’s Apple iBook tablet PC.

Hot Magic Nights: Houston’s West Side Salsa Scene was my entry into the world of “magazine like” Web design.  It looked terrible even by 2005’s standards, but it was the best that I could do.  I had only a very limited number of images to work with, nothing large enough to serve as a good splash page (for the “magazine cover”), and every image I managed to take on my own was very grainy and foggy.  I just wasn’t going to invest in decent digital cameras at the time for the sake of 1 Website project.  It would have cost me hundreds of dollars to do it right.  I could probably do better now with just a smart phone but I no longer live in Houston.

What I could have done with a real budget, a couple of professional photographers, and … well, I didn’t have any of that.

To compensate for the lack of large pictures I simply created a collage.  That looked better than blowing up any images I had access to.  For the internal articles I settled on a page layout that closely approximated the dimensions of a printed page.  I had learned in the 1990s before that people loved to print out entire Websites, so I had developed many page designs that would not bleed off the right margin of a standard 8-1/2×11 inch sheet of paper.

I hated the grainy look of the collage but after struggling with it for nearly an entire day I gave up and moved on.  Most of the pictures you saw in the articles came from a digital mini camcorder.  It was not designed to make professional grade photos and videos.

Welcome to My World of Dance

Screen capture of the 1st page from 'Adventures of a Dance Student'

This is the first page of an article titled ‘Adventures of a Dance Student’. It was one of several articles that introduced readers to the rest of the special feature section.

Most of the articles focused on people I knew or was at least familiar with.  I wanted to give visitors an inside look at the West Side salsa dance community.  There are (or were) many places where you could go clubbing in Houston.  There were country western bars and clubs, hip hop bars and clubs, and latin bars and clubs.  A few venues changed themes throughout the week.  You had to pay attention to the calendar to be sure you showed up on the correct night.

And the larger dance schools all hosted weekly practice nights for their students.  You were expected to dress at least slightly better than casual.  I attended a few but spent most of my dancing nights (once I knew how to dance) in the clubs with my dancing friends.  We gradually built up a group that included between 10 and 20 people.  It was a safe, fun way to go dancing and you were usually assured of being with a crowd regardless of which dance venue we chose.  And, believe me, some of the places we visited had NO ONE but us as dancers.  It was a crazy time and I wanted to share it with Xenite.Org’s readers.

I borrowed some pictures from a dance friend, Terri Alcala, and used those to improve the quality of some of the pages.  The articles were written to specific lengths.  That was the last time I ever wrote anything according to a predefined set of inches, which was one of the publishing world’s standard measurements for hundreds of years.  I suppose print newspapers and magazines still measure copy in inches for layout purposes.  I don’t really know.I made a point of interviewing as many people in person as I could.  One of the teachers I interviewed, Johnny Walden, complimented my work when I saw him again after publishing the feature.  “I was expecting something amateurish,” he told me.  “But these articles are really literary.”  He was quite surprised at how much effort I had put into the project, which took several weeks to complete from initial requests for interviews to final publication on Xenite.Org.

During those weeks people would say, “Michael, what are you up to these days?”  And I would reply, “I’m working on some feature articles for my Website.  Do you mind if I take your picture?”  They were always surprised that I wanted to take their pictures.  Alas!  I could not use most of the pictures, but that is how real magazines work, too.  You take hundreds, sometimes thousands of pictures and use only a very small number.

Houston’s Salsa Bands Were Almost Always Top Grade

Screen shot of first page of Mary Frometa article.

I could not make Mary’s article about her pictures, but maybe a few more pictures slipped in than into other articles. Mary Frometa always turned heads when she entered a room.

I don’t remember their name but I think we only ever danced to one band whose style of Salsa music did not fit our needs and expectations.  They were, I think, more into a style called Reggaeton.  We decided not to drop by any venues where they played in the future.  But I did enjoy several artists and they were more than happy to give me interviews when I contacted them.  I asked Mary Frometa, Yelba, and the leader of Salmerum for interviews.  Each artist got their own article.  I made a point of visiting one of their play nights so I could take pictures and share then-recent anecdotes.

Mary gave me the warmest support and for months afterward she always said “hello!” to me, sometimes running down from the stage to greet me in front of her fans.  You know guys, if you want beautiful women showering attention on you in public, writing a sincere magazine article to help their careers is not the worst way to get results.  She deserved the attention.  While I was flattered (and a bit turned on) I’m pretty sure I didn’t (that much).

The only thing I could not do was share real examples of the artists’ music with my readers, but I think where possible I pointed them to links where they could hear samples.  To be honest, Salsa music is best enjoyed live.  There is just something about the way these performers throw themselves into their work that makes you want to soak it up.

What I could do was include mini-reviews of each artist’s musical and performing style.  Several people told me that my articles had influenced their decisions to check out those artists.  They all thanked me for sharing my opinions.

As someone who has tried to convince other people that creating content for the Web is easy, I cannot say it often enough: people respond to your opinions.  They may hate you, they may disagree with you, but if you share something of your own passion in your words that is all the content you need.  And I mean that even if you are just writing product descriptions for an ecommerce Website.

The Salsa Teachers are Almost All a Bit Crazy

Article about Latin Dance teacher German Hernandez

German Hermandez taught dancing privately and for free at a club called Tropicana.

They each have their own personalities and styles.  But they love dance so much they spend all day on their feet.  You read about celebrities who spend up to 12 weeks preparing for a season on Dancing With the Stars but their professional partners dance at least five days a week, 50 weeks a year.  The teachers I interviewed, some of whom I learned from, all had professional and competitive experience.  They were dedicated and passionate and sometimes a little bit too focused on what they were doing.

Beyond that, however, there were a couple of real characters in the crowd.  Learning from them was fun, watching them interact with people was even more fun, and getting to know them was just a really cool experience.  I guess some of that showed through in the articles because a couple of the teachers told me they gained some new students because of the articles.  You just get a sense of “I’d like to see that person in action.”

I could have interviewed more professionals.  Maybe I should have, but I was aiming for a balance in this special feature and had to limit myself to just a small number.  I had originally estimated I would get about 10 pages of copy from this project.  It ballooned up to 50 pages.

One of the things I regretted most, after publishing the section, was not using a better camera.  German (pronounced “her-MAHN”) Hernandez contacted me after he read his article and asked if I could give him a digital copy of that image you see in the yellow sidebar article.  That was him dancing at the Tropicana and he wanted to use the picture in promotional flyers.  I chose that picture because it looked so cool, but it wasn’t really a picture.  It was a still frame from video I shot with my mini camcorder.  In the article the picture came out about as large as it could get without losing resolution.  Unfortunately there was no way to get a better quality capture.

The blue lighting is exactly the way it hit the dancers that night.  The Tropicana had multi-colored strobe lights and I just happened to get lucky with this shot.

The Dancers and Students Were Amazing and Fun

Sarite was the girl's name. Johnny had a field day with it.

‘What’s your name?’ Johnny Walden asked the girl. ‘Sarite,’ she said. ‘It’s not all right,’ Johnny replied. ‘I want to know your name.’ (Drum roll, please)

Being one of the dancers and one of the students is not just a rite of passage.  You have to enjoy being around people who are obsessing about dance.  Maybe they go off and fight fires in their day jobs but when they come together for the dancing it’s all about the dancing.  Except for the new people.  They are not sure if this is really what they want.

During the free classes at the clubs the teachers inevitably ask someone to help them demonstrate a move.  Sometimes they’ll ask an experienced dancer (often one of their own students) and sometimes they’ll ask a new face in the crowd.  The new people are always self-conscious.  They don’t want to make a mistake in front of everyone else.  Ironically, the teachers want to show everyone that it’s okay to make a mistake.  You’re there to learn how to dance, after all.  It’s not like everyone just knows how to do it instinctively.

Each teacher has his or her own way of breaking the ice and helping the more anxious students relax.  Johnny Walden would go down the line and ask each person their name and to say a little about themselves.  One night he picked on a girl who just couldn’t stop giggling.  Her name was Sarite.  His jokes about her name made her laugh even more.  I remember her because she didn’t get angry; she took the gentle ribbing in stride.  You’re there to have fun, but sometimes people find themselves receiving too much attention.

The different personalities and dance styles are endless.  I could have written a hundred articles about the students but I would still be writing today had I tried to do that.

So How Was This All TOO Evergreen?

The articles were fun to write and people told me they really enjoyed reading them.  I included a links page in the feature section so that people could find out more about the artists, the clubs, and the dance schools that I profiled.  I thought that would be sufficient.

And at first it was.

But over time I began to receive emails from people.  A Website was no longer there, or a business had closed down.  In fact, one venue I wrote about went out of business within a few months after my publishing the feature section.  As more people found the articles and read them, more people contacted me.

Now, I’m all for getting fan mail but they started asking for schedules for dance classes, and where I could find the teachers because they were no longer going to certain clubs, and it just kept getting worse.

After a few years I realized that this would probably go on forever.  People didn’t realize that I was writing about events that happened in 2003 to 2005.  They thought everything I had described had just happened within a few months of whenever they contacted me.

I loved Hot Magic Nights.  It not only became one of Xenite’s most popular sections, I just enjoyed reading the articles every few months and reminiscing about my friends and long nights dancing.  But when I rebuilt Xenite.Org in 2011 I knew I would have to let this section stay in the past.  There was no way I could update it (I was living in California at the time) and I just didn’t have the time to write a new feature section.

And so I retired the section, along with many others that for whatever reason I just did not feel warranted being published any longer.

And the biggest lesson of all that I learned from this project was that no matter how hard you try to encapsulate your memories, freeze-dry them on the Internet, if you don’t make it clear that you are talking about yesterday people will assume you are talking about today.  It would be really awkward for me to still receive emails from people asking about dance school schedules in Houston, considering I haven’t lived there in over ten years.