This week’s wine news: Campbell’s Soup sends wine an ingredient label wakeup call, plus Google SEO foolishness and the mysteries of great wine
• Ingredient labels already: Consider this quote: “When people look for something real to eat and something that tastes good, they’re going to look for the food we make. We chose this path not because it’s expedient, but because we believe it represents the future of the food industry and that it will lead to differentiated performance.” No, it’s not from some tree-hugging hippie do-gooder. It’s from the CEO of the $8 billion Campell’s Soup, who said the company is changing the way it makes its food to focus on healthier products, more transparency for the consumer, and more sustainability in the manufacturing process. Can someone in the wine business explain why it still opposes ingredient labels – more transparency – when a company that makes a product with 37 percent of the federal RDA for sodium understands the need to change?
• No, not that kind of hipster: The Wine Curmudgeon regularly criticizes the tyranny of our overlords at Google, who control what we see on the Internet without any checks or balances. Still, even I had to laugh at this one: An email from a beard care website wanted me to link to a post about achieving the ultimate hipster beard. The reason? Because its search bots found a post I did a couple of years ago with the word hipster in the headline. I sent the guy a nice email explaining the mix-up, but it made me think: Maybe Google isn’t infallible after all.
• Sweet mysteries of wine: Those of us who love wine understand that great wine is as much art as science. This idea was reinforced by an article in the British wine magazine, Decanter, discussing the legendary 1983 Chateau Margaux. That the wine was so great in an otherwise ordinary vintage has remained a mystery for more than three decades, says the winery. Its “spectacular success… partly remains an enigma. which goes to show how limited our knowledge is about what makes a vintage successful.”
I don’t do those things by choice. I do them because our overlords at Google have decided that’s how blog posts should be written, and my search ranking will suffer if I don’t.
I’ve been writing professionally since I was 16 years old, and I’m good at it. Nevertheless, after more than 40 years of writing success – awards, seven books, and earning my living at a profession that doesn’t make that easy – I have to take writing instructions from an algorithm.
But that’s the way the 21st century wine world works on the Internet.
But I will note an overriding contradiction: Every post I write gets parsed for readability, and my numerous errors are listed so I can correct them. Yet, somehow, every post – no matter how many faux pas I commit, like this phrase between hyphens – gets an excellent rating for “reading ease.” How can I break so many of Google’s rules (this post, in fact, “needs improvement”), but still be easy to read?
The good news about the new Google links edict, in which the search engine giant will penalize bloggers who use samples for their product reviews, is that it shouldn’t harm the Wine Curmudgeon or anyone else who is a legitimate wine writer. The bad news? That we have to trust Google – a highly secretive company that doesn’t tell anyone what it does or why it does it.
I contacted Kenwright after Google’s March samples announcement, and he didn’t disagree that there was reason to be concerned. “What you wrote,” he said, “made a lot of sense. Google’s guidelines are open to interpretation.”
So how legitimate was my fear that those of us who use samples were being lumped in with the sleazes and scumbags who trade in links for scam and profit? Links matter because their quality and quantity are crucial in getting the best search ranking from Google, and those of us who write on the Internet live and die by Google’s search rankings. A crummy search ranking, and you can’t find me no matter how good I am. Links also matter to the producers who send us samples, since Google’s new policy will penalize them as well – even though they aren’t trying to cheat the system.
Said Kenwright: “You’re writing a review– are you giving the best possible advice? Or is there no real reason for the review and the link to be there? Then you’ll probably be penalized. If you trust Google to do the right thing, it probably will.”
The key word, of course, is probably. Kenwright said Google’s targets are bloggers and companies who pile on links for no legitimate reason – a highly-ranked Mommy blogger, for instance, who suddenly reviews rifle scopes, or a well-read travel site for backpackers that for no particular reason starts doing luxury hotel reviews.
“Ask yourself, ‘Is my readership interested in this product?’ “ said Kenwright. “Do your readers expect to see this review on this site? The deciding factor is whether the reviews are genuine or not.”
So producers can keep sending samples to those of us who do legitimate wine reviews, and I can keep using those samples in my reviews without sending the blog crashing and burning to the bottom of the Internet.
Google’s most recent edict to blog owners is another example of how it — and not the blog owner — controls blog content, and how the search giant punishes those of us even when we do the right thing. The new system says a wine writer who uses samples, but is transparent about where the samples come from, is no better than a sleaze bag who loads a post with paid links and pretends they aren’t.
At first, Google’s March 11 blog post, “Best practices for bloggers reviewing free products they receive from companies,” seems to make perfect sense, distinguishing between what Google calls “organic links” and links that are only there because the blogger is getting something — money, product, or more links — to put them in the post. Links matter to Google, because that’s one of the criteria used to give pages a better search ranking, and a better search ranking means more visitors to the blog.
So how could something like that affect me, or anyone else who uses only organic links? Because the blog post says that links that refer to an on-line merchant selling the product or to the company that makes the product aren’t organic. That means, I think, that every time I review a wine, whether a sample or not, and link to the winery, I will be punished by Google unless I use a specific “no follow” command in the link. To make matters worse, using “no follow” means I don’t get credit for the link, even though I’m not doing anything wrong. Talk about the worst of both worlds.
Ignoring for a moment that adding “no follow” makes writing posts that much more complicated (if anyone understands “no follow” after reading the link, you can explain it me), it also lumps me with the sleaze bags by assuming that I benefit from the link. In fact, I don’t. No one asks me to put them in, and most wine producers — notorious for their inability to understand how this stuff works — don’t even know the links are there. I add the links to help readers get more information about the wine, which used to be a best practice.
This is just another example of Google’s one-size-fits-all approach, in which it assumes all blogs are exactly alike because it’s easier for Google to think that way. Hence, any blog that contains product references must be trying to sell the product — which certainly isn’t the case for me or for anyone who offers honest reviews, whether wine or not. In Google’s world, though, there doesn’t seem to be such a thing as an honest review.
The Wine Curmudgeon has the best job in the world — I get to drink wine and write about it for a worldwide audience that appreciates what I say and regularly tells me so. I’ve won awards and I’m respected in a way I never was in my previous writing careers, and it’s not like I didn’t have successes then. How about interviewing a talking dog?
The catch? That writing about wine on the Internet is as financially unrewarding as it was when I started, which is the lesson for the blog’s seventh annual birthday week. The Internet isn’t interested in wine writing; rather, it rewards selling and marketing wine.
Mostly, that’s the Winestream Media, which has always been as much cheerleader for the wine business as it has been consumer advocate. But it’s also the biggest wine-related sites, retailers like Amazon and aggregators like Snooth, who benefit. That’s because the Internet values quantity above all; witness this wine site acquisition by another site this week, which is just like the consolidation and “synergies” that go on in other businesses. That the biggest sites may not be impartial or objective doesn’t matter. My review of a wine, no matter how brilliant, will almost never out-Google the largest sites, which may do nothing more than list the wine for sale. In this sense, quality is irrelevant, and what matters is who has the biggest inventory.
In addition, too many wine drinkers who use the Internet want to be told what to drink, which has been as depressing to discover as it has been surprising. Every year, I get a disappointing number of entries when I give away the $50 Wine.com gift card during Birthday Week. It’s as if wine drinkers using the Internet don’t care about free money, because then they have to decide what to do with it, and wine is too complicated for that. These wine drinkers are a perfect fit for the Winestream Media, retailers, aggregators, and the like, and they help reinforce the rewards for sites that sell and market wine.
One of the smartest wine people I know, whose career has been a model of quality and professionalism, makes no pretense about how she writes for the Internet: She has a list of search terms that Google looks for, and she uses as many of them as possible. If her writing is awkward or repetitive, that’s better than not being read at all. Google’s algorithm even takes into account how long a post is, and it penalizes those (like this one) that are too long. Or too short, which is the case for most of my reviews.
In fact, a consultant who parses Google for a living has told me that I may have to face facts: I may never be able to compete with the biggest sites and may have to find something else to do for a living. The best explanation of how this works, and why Google gets away with it, is from computer blogger Dedoimedo (the language gets a little rough): “If you believe in your work, your passion, your words, then I beg you, do not let the corporate morons out there reduce you to the lowest common denominator.”
Unfortunately for my financial future, I have no interest in selling or marketing wine, which is different from carrying advertising on a website. And the day I take writing lessons from a search engine algorithm is the day Robert Parker and I have a sleepover to giggle about inky 98-point shirazes. I’m a writer, not a salesman. And, with no false modesty, I’m one of only a handful of quality, legitimate wine writers on the Internet. You’ll read stuff here that you not only won’t get anywhere else, but that no one else thinks there’s a need for wine drinkers to know. Because, after all, their job is to sell wine.
My goal is just the opposite of what the algorithm says it should be. I don’t want to tell anyone what to drink. I want to teach you how to make up your own mind, so you can drink what you want and pay as much — or as little — as you want. That’s called journalism, and if it makes me quaint and old-fashioned, so be it. I’m not here to become famous or win awards. I’m here to perform a service. There’s no point in doing this, in writing five posts a week, 52 weeks a year, unless I care about the people I’m writing for. And that’s each of you, whether you come here for a Barefoot review, to laugh at one of my rants, or to try to figure out what punk rock has to do with wine.
Hence giving you the best I can — the best writing, the best-informed opinion, the best information about how the wine business works — regardless of what the algorithm wants. Anything less is hypocrisy, and there is already enough of that in the world. And especially in the wine business and wine writing.
So I’m here for the long run, even if I never make enough money to retire to Burgundy. Or if I have to write arcane trade magazine pieces, be polite to annoying editors, or do book signings for people who are too smart to read books. It still beats working for a living.
Cheap wine, despite the tremendous advances over the past couple years (like this guy and this guy), still doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Google, for whatever reasons, still seems to have a cheap wine chip on its cyber shoulder — and just not because of what it did to my search numbers. Put the phrase “Can cheap wine…” in a search box, and almost all the suggestions are negative. Can cheap wine make you sick, indeed. You don’t see that for ketchup, do you?
Fortunately, the Wine Curmudgeon is here to answer five of the most suggested cheap wine questions on Google:
? Can cheap wine make you sick? Of course it can. So can expensive wine. It’s called a hangover, and it doesn’t matter how much it costs if you drink too much of it.
? Can cheap wine go bad? Of course it can. So can expensive wine. Going bad is not a function of price, but of quality control at the winery and how it’s stored there, how it’s stored at the distributor and retailer, and where you keep it at home. Put a bottle of wine in the sunlight in 90-degree heat, and it will go bad regardless of how much you paid for it.
? Can cheap wine give you a headache? Of course it can. See question 1. It’s also a myth that cheap wine contains more headache-inducing sulfites than expensive wine, and it’s another myth that wine in sulfites causes headaches.
? Cheap cheap wine be aged? No, but neither can most expensive wine. Almost all of the wine made in the world today is not made for aging, but to drink when you buy it. Its shelf life isn’t much different from many canned goods, and some boxed wines even have an expiration date.
? Can cheap wine be good? No. I’ve been wasting my time for the past 20 years. Of course it can be good. So can cheap cars, cheap blue jeans, cheap airfare, and so on and so forth. Quality in wine is not a function of price, but of the effort the producer makes — no matter how much the rest of the world wants it to be about price.
A tip o’ the Wine Curmudgeon’s fedora to the OMG! Ubuntu! website, which did a similar post for the Ubuntu computer operating system and which I borrowed.
? Pricing pressure ? in the other direction: Just in time for the Cheap Wine Book (and the shameless plugs will eventually stop) comes this blog post from banker Rob McMillan. ?Attempting to increase bottle pricing –even in an allocated environment — has been like pushing a wet string up the hill. ? Wine prices have been mostly flat since June 2012, well behind the rate of inflation. Throw in the 2012 California grape harvest, which was a record, and what looks to be an equally as large 2013 harvest, and we'll be drinking cheap wine for the foreseeable future. ?Consumers haven't been willing to pay more for wine and based on the recovery sluggishness, I can't see them willing to pay more going into the holidays or even 2014 at this point, ? says McMillan.
? Impressive hire: One of the obstacles facing regional wine has been the inability to hire the best qualified people, who have traditionally preferred to work elsewhere. That has been changing, and one example came this month Texas Tech hired a a Cal State-Fresno graduate. Maureen Qualia, whose family owns Texas ? Val Verde Winery, spent the past five years working in California before taking a job in the Hill Country to work with winemakers, do extension work, and teach classes. Fresno has one of the top three or four winemaking programs in the world.
? Google ?s affect on the wine business: The Wine Curmudgeon, watching his visitor stats this year, saw a marked drop this spring when Google changed its search algorithm. But I ?m not the only one who has suffered. Changes to Gmail, used by as many as three-quarters of a billion people, are sending wine retailer emails into spam, even though they may be legitimate. One of the untold stories of the post-modern world is Google ?s influence on the non-technology part of our lives because of its tremendous power in shaping the Internet. Who would think the search giant could change how wine drinkers buy product or find wine reviews?