October 22, 2009

The Invisible Storytellers of the San Francisco Bay Area

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, described succintly by the New York Times, "9 counties, 8 bridges, 7 million people." With San Francisco as an international city and cultural hub, it's no surprise that the region has a large population of performing artists, and that includes storytellers. There are some amazing storytellers in the Bay Area, many of whom I've had the privilege to hear, to learn from, to be coached and mentored by, and to work alongside.

But recently I got a call from a potential client in a town nearby, just 12 miles away from me. She told me that although she found my contact information, she had a very difficult time finding any other Bay Area storytellers online. The other performer she contacted lived in Santa Cruz county, a hundred miles away. This surprised me, as I can think of at least 6 world class storytellers who live within a 15 minute drive of my house. 5 of those 6 have a website. But to a potential client, who didn't know their names, she couldn't find them.

I didn't ask how she phrased her query, but I did my own search, seeking "storyteller" and adding modifiers like "Berkeley" or "San Francisco."

Sure enough, my name came up. Of those other 6 talents... none. (Actually, just did the search again, 2 of them appeared under results for the query "San Francisco storyteller". Either they've finally updated their web site or Google once again adjusted their search algorithm or else Google is adjusting its search results based on my past search history or all of the above)

Other folks have written about this phenomenon before. And I've know about this issue for years. Back in the 1990s, I was an editor for the Open Directory Project--a massively collaborative online attempt to catalog the Web using human editorial judgement-- and I volunteered to catalog every storytelling website I could find. And I noticed that a significant portion, maybe 30-40% of websites for a single individual-- neglected to put any geographical reference point in their website's copy. So it might have several pages about programs offered, rave reviews, and even copy so compelling that were I in the market to hire a storyteller I'd definitely want this person-- but it had no information about where in the world this person worked. Sometimes, I could deduce the region based on the area code of the contact number, but other times there was no clue.

But the era of AOL and Yahoo! is ten years behind us. We've all learned to live with the Web. Not everyone jumps on the latest thing, like Twitter, but I thought that Google has become indispensable. (Ten years ago I was working for a competing search engine, and the writing was on the wall then: we knew (months before we went bankrupt) that the big G was a game-changer). I recognize that living so close to Silicon Valley, my social milieu is (supposedly) more tech savvy then the average person. (And my experience working in the industry, however briefly, makes me more attuned to the ins and outs of online marketing w/r/t search engine optimization.

But this recent reminder of how invisible storytellers are online, even now, surprised me.

If you're a storyteller-- can you find yourself on Google?

Tougher question: can you find yourself without typing in your name?

If you're someone looking for a storyteller, let me know how you search-- do you search by geography? Or do you search by content (e.g. "ghost stories," "Irish stories," etc.)

No comments: