A perspective on the WordPress community in India

27th May is an important date for all WordPress enthusiasts. It’s the 10th anniversary of the most widely used CMS in the world. From a simple blogging platform to a pretty flexible CMS that drives many complex applications, WordPress, the application has evolved, tremendously.

I think of it as an apt occasion to present to you a story. It is the story of the evolution of the WordPress community in India. It is just my perspective and a point of view.

A brief history of WordPress in India

I’m one of those users that hopped on to the WordPress bandwagon, quite early in the 2.x series. This is the time when WordPress was still a blog and the dashboard menus were horizontal. I know of a lot of users who were fiddling with WordPress, around then, but there weren’t many. These were days when everybody wanted to open a portal (like Yahoo, Indiatimes, Rediff, etc). That’s why Joomla was the most peddled platform, everywhere.

The bloggers and the entrepreneurs: the Users

Somewhere down the line, blogging started becoming the “in” thing and the focus started shifting from portal like information centric sites to content centric, magazine/blog style sites. Blogger had just become a hit.

Further ahead, blogging started becoming a business. People who were professionally serious and/or passionate about blogging wanted more control on how their sites looked and behaved.

At the same times, elite small businesses were looking for better and cheaper ways of building their microsites. Coupled with better internet access, everyone was looking for a solution that was not as overwhelming as Joomla or Drupal. And I guess, logically and naturally, all these people gravitated towards WordPress.

The Developers and the Designers: the providers

There was another scene developing gradually, in the background. A lot of new developers, designers and small agencies were discovering freelance marketplaces. The global demand for WordPress development was flooding the job posts on these sites. A lot of these were low-priced simple tasks that anyone could google the solution for and fix.

This system of SMEs outsourcing to SMEs propagated the ease with which WordPress sites could be designed, developed and deployed. These agencies then started proposing WordPress to the local customers, as well.

Popularity means a lot of people

Beyond that, the reasons that made WordPress the most popular CMS in the world, also worked in India. Maybe, it was just a global trend and India just joined it.

This is a heady concoction: entrepreneurs, passionate bloggers, DIY developers (with no formal qualifications), designers and tinkerers. When a large number of such people start working with a single platform, they are bound to have opinions, views and insights. That gives birth to a need to share: give and take. To share, one must communicate. And, a lot of people spread across geographical areas, talking to each other, sharing knowledge and resources, is exactly what makes a community.

The seeds of the community: WordCamp Delhi ’09

The best communication is face to face communication. In spite of virtual communication, unless a community gathers together, the energy and the buzz of the community is never felt by its members. That’s why we have festivals, celebrations and other social events. In the case of WordPress, the shrewd business logic already had a system of meetups and most importantly, WordCamps.

wcindia

A WordCamp had to happen in India, sooner or later and so it happened. The first WordCamp in India was called WordCamp India and was an important affair. Held in the national capital, it boasted of sponsors like Adobe and Automattic and was organised by the Delhi Bloggers’ group. The highlight of the event was the presence of none other than Matt Mullenweg.

Beyond that, I personally know nothing about this event. This was before Indians had taken to Twitter or Facebook, as enthusiastically, as now. Besides, googling did not yield much about the event.

 

WordCamp Jabalpur ’11

wcjabalpurCompared to the previous WordCamp, this one was more widely publicised and talked about. With participation from across India, WordCamp Jabalpur featured, for the first time, some of the current WordCamp regulars like Rahul Banker, Gaurav Singh (the organiser), Amit Singh, King Sidharth, Aniket Pant, Puneet Sahalot and Jaydip Parikh. Devil’s Workshop had interviewed Gaurav Singh, post the WordCamp.

If you compare the sessions and the speakers, WordCamp Jabalpur was a definite progression on WordCamp Delhi. The topics were more advanced and varied, the speakers differed in professions and the range of talks was wider. I wasn’t there for even this one (I had just begun freelancing). However, my friend and colleague, Rakshit Thakker attended as a speaker. This was a good event, but the community was still struggling to find its baby steps.

WordCamp Cuttack ’12

cuttackUpdate: This wasn’t there in the original article.Amit brought it to my notice in the comments. The text below is almost verbatim.

This WordCamp was smaller in scale than the others. Held over just a day, it was organised by Soumya Pratihari. In first half there were user focused talks. The last two hours were focused on a workshop for creating plugins. This ended up being a two hour long discussion on WordPress development, plugins, themes, security and how to troubleshoot issues.

Compared to all other WordCamps in India, turnout was lesser. However, this resulted in better interaction between attendees and speakers.

WordCamp Mumbai ’12

wcmumbaiOrganised by a group of students, in the financial capital of India, this WordCamp courted some disasters. A couple of speakers were sponsors who talked about irrelevant stuff. A sponsor spoke in detail about the intricacies of off-page SEO and pay-per-click advertising to WordPress developers.

It was a sound meetup for marketing, developing Android apps, Windows 8, apart from a few important things about Google. Primarily, it was about the business of search engine optimisation and marketing on social networks. Except for a couple of talks, the event didn’t add any value to the community.

Attendees (including, yours truly) who felt let down, registered their protest, but were ignored for a decent amount of time. Eventually, apologies were issued.

The organisers had in fact, done a huge service to the community. Observing the fiasco in the background were two people who  understood that WordCamp Mumbai was a lesson in ‘How not to organise a WordCamp’.

WordCamp Baroda ’13

wcbarodaOne of the two people I indicated above is Rahul Banker, a young professional blogger from Baroda. Picking up the thread from Jabalpur and passing over Mumbai, he organised a WordCamp in Baroda.

This WordCamp had a higher relevance to WordPress and excellent speakers presented some complex topics in simple, easy to understand details. Being held in Gujarat, the hotbed of SEO/Social Media and other forms of digital marketing, the marketing influence was there but not at the cost of relevance.

Attention was paid to minute details like numerous charging points everywhere, fast and reliable internet connections, etc. Everything was well orchestrated and the event was held without any hiccups. This was a prime example of event management.

Also, there were ample occasions for attendees and speakers to mingle informally and discuss things: the true aim of a community event. In the backdrop of Mumbai, WordCamp Baroda was a greater success and according to the regulars, the best WordCamp they had attended till then.

There is a post on Devil’s Workshop that pretty much sums up the mood, post WordCamp Baroda.

WordCamp Pune ’13

wcpuneThe second person who was quietly taking notes and preparing his own event was Amit Singh. With a bare minimum of sponsors (compared to Baroda and especially Mumbai), his team, according to a lot of people who attended the event, delivered India’s best WordCamp yet.

The event wasn’t as fluid as Baroda was. It lacked a bit in event management. However, that is excusable in favour of its content, enthusiasm and a genuine interest in the actual reason for a WordCamp. This one had something for everyone. From absolute novices to experts, there were more than one session that were useful. Bloggers, developers, marketers and entrepreneurs, all benefited from the event and were all praises.

This WordCamp was also unique for the Workshops that were conducted. These ran parallel to the speaker sessions. Workshops were practical training sessions on using WordPress. They were meant for the benefit of students and novices, and were well received.

Another factor that went in favour of WordCamp Pune was that by then, there were some veterans of previous WordCamps. They were great mentors to the newbies. Questions flew thick and answers were aplenty. Doubts were raised and solved. People disagreed and fought. People agreed to each other too. It was a warm and exciting event.

Speakers were more interactive, drawing more participation from the listeners. In all, a proper community buzz had begun shaping up.

The scenario now

wphub.inPost WordCamp Pune, there is a definite community that interacts regularly on various online platforms. A facebook page and a site from an initiative called WPHub have sprung up to coordinate and boost the growth of the WordPress community in India.

Meetups have started happening more often. More Indian organisations are building products around WordPress. Still, the only time the community truly comes together is in a WordCamp. By far, the only yardstick that I could find to measure the growth and evolution, is a WordCamp. Although, more WordCamps are being planned, until the next one actually happens, it’d be too early to pass a judgement on the maturity of the community.

 

A hope for the future

The next WordCamp can only be better than the last. Everyone has higher expectations. People have tasted the benefits of community behaviour. More people who will share knowledge will be discovered. More people will hop on to the ride.

It is guaranteed — the shift is only progressive!

What happened on 27th May?

On the 10th anniversary of WordPress, meetups were organised across the world. I was at the Pune meetup, which had a moderate turnout. We cut a cake and generally chatted. How was your meetup? Do share with me in the comments.

SEO Must Die! [TDIS]

SEO Must Die

SEO is a false bubble, meant to burst, from the very beginning.

It is about to burst, very very soon.

Now, why would I say something that generic and that strong. I’ll quickly come to the point. However, to do that, we need to dig deeper into this concept called ‘Search Engine Optimization.

We start from the basics. At the core of this field (for the lack of a better word) and the axis of this universe are search engines. Although, due to Google’s dominance, most of the dynamics of the industry revolve around Google search.

What is a Search Engine?

Now, let’s try and define, at a fundamental level, what a search engine is. Wikipedia’s definition of a search engine is nice but states what a search engine does. A Google search for What is a search engine, throws up:

A program for the retrieval of data, files, or documents from a database or network, esp. the Internet.

Which is right, but doesn’t help me much. Let’s try and understand a search engine like 10 year olds. The internet is a like a library, vaster than any we’ve known in our lives. Each website is a book with, at times, millions of pages. To find anything in this library is impossible for a human being. Books solve this problem by creating table of contents and indices. Libraries create further indexes of books. However, if you go to the librarian and ask for a recipe for a samosa, there is no guarantee, they’ll find it. If they do, there is no guarantee, it will be the best recipe.

se1

A search engine is like this index, only it is dynamic. By dynamic, I mean that the index is continuously updated and changed. There is a lot of content on the internet that you and I can never be able to access or interact with meaningfully, without this tool that lets us do that. So, my definition is

A search engine is a tool between people and content, to create meaningful interactions.

SearchEngines and Us

For, a long time search engines followed the definition thrown up by the Google search above. Then, along came Google that sought to become the tool that creates meaningful interactions between users and content.

The Ideal Search Engine

That paved the way for the world dominance of Google. It’s purpose and goal were very clear from the beginning:

Get the result that the user is looking for.

And to do that, Google kept doing things. It kept formulating ways of doing this better. It has been striving to give you and me, the exact thing that we are looking for. In fact, it’s trying to do it so well, that if you and I typed the same query, Google will return different results, because it has learnt more about you from your earlier interactions.

The Happy Honest Internet

The happy, honest internet is an Utopian concept promoted by the likes of Facebook and Google. It basically means that people write what they want to. When a lot of people demonstrate to Google that they prefer to click and stay longer to read a particular page over other pages in a result, Google believes it is good and ranks it higher.

The Search Engine Problem

It is very difficult to find the right result. It takes complex algorithms and heavy data analysis. The engine needs to learn as it searches. So, a lot of times, the first result is not the ideal result. This is because, to an extent, the way the search engine works, is not the ideal, finished, superlative piece of art that all of us want it to be. It has its limitations. se3

As shown in the picture above, this problem is actually a set of two problems:

  1. The search engine may not understand what the user is looking for, let’s call it the User Behaviour Analysis problem.
  2. The search engine may not understand the content well enough, again, let’s just call it Content Analysis problem.

The Ideal Solution

What should a search engine do? It must bridge the gap both ways. It must improve its understanding of what the user is looking for. At the same time it must improve its understanding of content to be able to match its understanding of the user’s need.

Understanding the User

This is the more complicated part, but Google seems to be the best at it. This is also the part where the search engine is in control. This is where the user interacts with the engine, directly. So, the engine can do whatever it takes to make sure it makes the best guess about what the user is looking for. se4

No one gets between the user and the search engine, not even the parent company, not even its other products. That’s where Yahoo and Bing lost.

Understanding Content

This is the impossible part. Being a web developer, I can tell you, the number of shoddy, sub standard websites that exist are mind boggling. Then, how do you know what content is good, what is bad. This is where search engines have no control. This is where, the task is immense and again Google seems to be the best at it. Even now, Search Engines depend on some algorithms to analyse and understand content. There are parameters to consider.

Exploiting the Gap, Gaming the System: Birth of the SEO Professional

So, now suddenly, there are search engines that users like so much that they use it as a starting point for their browsing. A lot of websites, obviously want to get users to their site. Irrespective of whether the content is good or not. This is where, a whole new profession was born. One that observes the search engine’s behaviour, figures the parameters and algorithms and then games the content. This way, the Search Engine is made to believe, that the gamed content is the best content for the users’ query. In other words, it cheats the Search Engine, which, indirectly cheats the user.

The user is made to believe that the gamed results are the best results. There are various ways of gaming this system, or cheating this system. Some are believed to be legitimate, called white-hat ways of cheating and some are black-hat ways of cheating. Sooner or later, the search engine will get tired of the gaming because the users will start getting tired of the game. The useless, but SEOed results will push useful, but non SEOed results downwards into the pit of anonymity.

The Revenge of the Search Engine

se5

And then the search engine will try and do something about it. Here is what Google did and announced it in a blog post.

But more important than that, are the comments,at times they are super hilarious!

SEO vs the Search Engine: the War Continues

Search Engines are most likely to continue this way. Keep disposing off the ways of the SEO industry so that it can interact directly with content (and hence the content writer). This is the only way it can solve its second part of the problem: understanding content. The SEO industry will be made redundant, also by a couple of simultaneous developments:

  1. Increased use of CMSes and automated content deployment solutions that take care of the basic SEO parameters, still used by Search Engines.
  2. Evolution of the web page into more semantic structures (html5 tags like article, aside, footer pretty much indicate what is important and what is accessory or redundant on a page).
  3. Increased usage of microformats like ratings, reviews, products on web-pages for better identification of content.
  4. Growth of Social Media (Google already values recommendations of your online social circle, for better results).

The Unfortunate Casualities of the War

On some of the comments on Google’s blog post above, you might notice people complaining that their original content has been outranked by copy-thieves. That’s because Google decides which is better based on what users decide is better. It is the standard tussle between pop art and true art. A genius will write a good article that nobody will find. However, a copycat wil just copy it, present it in a more interesting or popular manner and that will win in the race. It’s obvious. It’s not the Search Engine’s fault or responsibility. There is no feasible way of correcting culture via a search engine.

When the War Ends

Once, SEO is finished, what will be? That is more speculation and philosophy and the subject of another blog post (if there is one).

Disclaimer: This is just a point of view and philosophical ruminations. Do feel free to rebuke me, if you need to!

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our TDIS ( Thank Devil It’s Sunday) feature, where we publish casual and personal posts. You can read other TDIS posts here.