I want to like Squidoo: Objections about Squidoo’s strategy (and a way forward)

Image representing Squidoo as depicted in Crun...
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Squidoo is a site that allows users to build “lenses” and add various types of modules to create content. There are text and image modules, interactive modules, and sales-related modules (connected to Amazon, etc).

I love the idea of Squidoo because I believe in content and I think giving people the power to create content and share ideas is meaningful. Unfortunately, the practice of Squidoo is a bit of a challenge.

MY HISTORY WITH SQUIDOO
In 2006 or 2007 I read Seth Godin’s ebook Everyone Is An Expert, and I really bought into the Squidoo model: Giving people context when they are looking for information online.

In 2008 I adopted Squidoo as a key part of my business strategy for the year: I would include Squidoo as a place to market my services and I would advertise lens-building services for my clients. Apparently I was right on track because Squidoo grew 91% that year.

Although I still embrace user-generated content, and although I like Squidoo for a lot of things, I pulled back from aggressively recommending them, and barely looked at my own lenses in 2009.

There are four key objections that I have with Squidoo:

OBJECTION 1: UNCLEAR DEFINITIONS
I found it quite difficult to define what Squidoo was and why a client would want a lens.

Consider that other content sites — like blogs, websites, article sites, press releases — have become pretty well defined over the years and they are named for what they are. Squidoo, on the other hand, has a name that is cute but not rooted in what it offers. (Okay, that’s not the end of the world, but when you compare it to blogs, websites, and article sites — even Twitter — it adds a layer of confusion). I think that even Squidoo’s inferior competitor HubPages has a clearer name!

Along with a confusing name is the confusion about what you can do on Squidoo. Squidoo is often defined in relation to things that already exist. “It’s like something between a blog and a website” is how I would often define it to people who asked. In his Everyone Is An Expert book, Godin calls Squidoo a “nowblog”, suggesting that blogs are like movies you need to watch for a period of time while a lens is everything you need to know right now: Self contained context, if you will.

OBJECTION 2: UNSATISFYING USER EXPERIENCE
My second objections is the user experience. The information is contained in one big, scrolling screen. That can be daunting. While a blog may not give everyone all the context they need, at least things are in bite-sized pieces, which makes them more manageable. A lens may give someone all the context they need but it isn’t easy to read!

Also, it feels like there are quite a few ads. There are the PPC ads that Squidoo themselves stick in the content to generate revenue, and there are often other ads and affiliate links that are put there by the lensmaster. It’s perfectly understandable why this is done, and it’s present on blogs, too, and I certainly don’t begrudge someone for making money. However, the ads do feel overwhelming and, as a business owner, I’m reluctant to put my content on a site that could potentially post ads that are either direct competitors or not aligned to my brand.

OBJECTION 3: UNCLEAR PURPOSE WITHIN CONTENT STRATEGY
When I presented lenses to my clients as an option for them, it was usually on the strength of Squidoo’s traffic and the PageRank. But then the problem arose: What kind of content to put there? Is this a lead-generation piece that will ultimately drive traffic to our site? If so, we need to put very different content there than if it were an informational piece about the business.

The more I worked on lenses the more I wondered what needed to be different about them (compared to a website or a blog, for example). A lot of the content on lenses I worked on was usually pulled over from blogs and/or websites, so it wasn’t like we were adding something new to the mix. It was often felt — in my experience and by my clients — that everything that needed to be said about a subject was already said on the site and/or the blog. In that case, Squidoo was nothing more than an article depository.

OBJECTION 4: EXCESSIVE EFFORT FOR A “NOWBLOG”
Once a lens is developed, it is really only effective in achieving higher search engine placement and traffic-driving if it is constantly updated. That makes sense and isn’t any different from any other site. However, the idea of a “nowblog” tends to suggest (to me, at least) that the content on a lens is your view of something right now. So the problem is, when I talk about everything I want to talk about on my lens, I’m done. I have no more to add later.

I even experimented with writing some content on my lens now then going back later to add more content to bring new light to subject matter. However, it didn’t work well because I eventually ran out of things to say (and that is a rarity for me). After I ran out of things to say, the content got stale and my lenses dipped in the rankings.

WHAT PEOPLE ARE REALLY DOING
In theory, Squidoo makes sense: As Godin says, people go online to find meaning and they can look to Squidoo lenses as a place to get context about something. But that’s not how it works in practice.

In practice, though, people go to Google, type something and hit one of the top results or they try again. If they don’t get the answer they want, they ask their Twitter or Facebook network. They look to Google because of a defacto sense of convenience and authority and they look to their networks because it’s their community.

Because Squidoo isn’t thought of by the searching public as a trusted authority or their community, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. I don’t look to Squidoo as trusted authority when I’m searching: The lenses are overwhelmingly ad-heavy with PPC and affiliate-marketing. I don’t trust the content.

THE BIG QUESTION
So that leaves the big, dangling question: “What the hell do I use a Squidoo lens for?”

Squidoo themselves have created a big list of ideas: 49 Ideas for Awesome Lenses. It includes things like “A cat lens”, “A lens about a movie you just saw”, “A lens about your skills”, etc. When I read this list, I’m struck by a few thoughts:

  • Writing all of these wouldn’t be the kind of thing for a professional who is trying to build their online brand. They are good for regular folks who maybe don’t want the hassle or perceived expense of a website but want to write about something. But for professionals, the Squidoo-provided list would need to be tweaked to bring them in line with the subject and brand.
  • Many of these topics, with a big of tweaking, would make good blogs… on my blog. Which positions me and build my brand more effectively than if I were to post them on Squidoo. So why would I put it on Squidoo, which is ad-supported and less credible? Squidoo suggests that I could probably write a blog about the topic and then write a lens about the post. But that seems complicated to me and brings me back to questions posed earlier: If I’ve said everything I needed to say in my blog why would someone click to a lens? And, what can I possibly update on a lens about a blogpost to keep it fresh?

A WAY FORWARD FOR SQUIDOO

  • Give users the ability to define ad content. That way, someone who writes about commercial insurance can decide whether to run business-specific ads or insurance-specific ads. Give them even more control by helping them to stop ads showing for competitors.
  • The table of contents is one way to help control navigation around the BIIIIG lenses, but perhaps there can be subordinate lens functionality so lensmasters don’t have to put everything on one page.
  • There is plenty of support for individuals with lenses to write and for people who are after PPC revenue, but the rest of us feel a little lost. How can a business (a non-affiliate-marketing business) find value in Squidoo?
  • Ranking lenses with stars and followers is cool if you have a good ranking. But if you don’t have a good ranking, it’s a prominent message to prospects that the lens sucks. It’s like a “social media consultant” I recently saw who has had 8 followers and has tweeted maybe a dozen times in two months. Embarrassing! While lensmasters should be encouraged to develop good lenses, ranking needs to be handled differently. Post it once it’s good.
  • Consider a paid tier for business owners who want to shut ads off altogether.
  • Squidoo can generate a WHOLE bunch more lenses by creating a resource lens providing marketers with resources to help them sell lens-building services. This might include logo brand guides, best practices, tips, etc. (Hmmm… maybe I’ll make that lens).
  • Most importantly (in my opinion), find a way to make Squidoo a critical part of the sales funnel and not just another content channel that a business owner needs to add content on.

ANOTHER VIEWPOINT
Michael Arrington, founder of TechCrunch, wrote an article about Squidoo way back in 2006 which supports some of what I’ve written here and makes some compelling thoughts of his own. Read “Squidoo: Seth Godin’s Purple Albatross?“. He offers some good insight about the quality of lens content and the potential definition problems that Squidoo faces.

WRAPPING IT UP ON A POSITIVE NOTE
In spite of my critique, I do think that Squidoo is a powerful platform that really is an exciting opportunity for people who want to publish online. But right now, it’s not for everyone. Squidoo needs to clarify its definitions and improve its user experience to become a more valuable to a huge group of people who would eagerly clamor to the site if they could get more value from it.

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