Why I Turned Off Google as My Search Engine: to Stop their Indoctrination

Earlier this year I finally turned off Google as my primary search engine. I have been considering it for a long time because of concerns around privacy and manipulated search results. The bottom line is that Google has a socialist, progressive world view with which I strongly disagree and the evidence is clear that they are using their position of power to push that agenda on others. I’ve decided not to take the abuse anymore, and if I can get the word out and help encourage others to free themselves from Google’s manipulations, then the world will be a better place for it.

Being a Search Engine Marketer Made the Decision Difficult

The switch to other search engines came as the culmination of many factors, but now that I did it, I’m very glad and wish I had made the switch years ago. One of my fears in switching away from Google’s search engine was that I would have a hard time finding what I needed from other search engines.

You see, I have worked as a search engine marketer for twelve years and I know that Google has traditionally delivered the best results to help you find the information you need fast. Most of my days at work are consumed with understanding how my website ranks on Google and how to get more traffic from Google search engine users. This made the decision to turn off Google as my primary search engine even more difficult, and honestly, in my work, I still have to use Google search from time to time.

More and more topics are being politicized in our country, therefore more and more of Google’s results are showing that company’s political leanings. For example, Robert Epstein’s research found, in the 2016 US presidential election campaign, that Google filtered out negative results for searches related to Hillary Clinton to surface primarily positive ones–more on that below. But regarding the fear of not getting high-quality search results, I can personally attest to the fact that my fear was unfounded. I have been able to find information just as quick and easily from other search engines, and even better, I am free from Google’s attempts to influence me with their filtered, politically biased results.

Google’s Politics Leans Far Left and They Try to Manipulate Voters

The socialist, progressive political leanings of the management and culture at Google are well-known, but let me give you just two examples.

In 2018, Breitbart released a video of Google leadership team discussing the 2016 Trump election results and demonstrating the company’s bias against conservatives and Republicans. “A video recorded by Google shortly after the 2016 presidential election reveals an atmosphere of panic and dismay amongst the tech giant’s leadership, coupled with a determination to thwart both the Trump agenda and the broader populist movement.” The New York Times also covered this story saying the video showed “Google executives bemoaning the election of President Trump at a company meeting in 2016.” Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, said in the video that he was “deeply offended” by the election of Mr. Trump.

Last year, Dr. Robert Epstein, a Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that in the 2016 presidential election, Google gave Hillary Clinton “between 2.6 and 10.4 million votes depending on how aggressive they were in using the techniques that I’ve been studying, such as the search engine manipulation effect.” Dr. Epstein went on later to say in an op ed that “when it comes to election manipulation, left-leaning American technology companies make the Russians look like rank amateurs.” Dr. Epstein, a Harvard PhD and well respected psychologist, professor, author, and journalist, has shown through his research how big tech, particularly Google, is aggressively pursuing tactics to keep Republicans out of office. And he has sounded the alarm, not because he wants Republicans to win, but because he wants freedom and democracy to win.

Google News and Google Discover Pushes Left-Wing Sources

google news feed supposedly personalized for me but notOne of Google’s strengths as a search engine is that they know individual users and serve up personalized results that are more likely to deliver the information the person is looking for. Google knows the political leanings of their users because they track search history, the websites you visit, and they have countless other ways to track your personal data.

Regarding me personally, Google knows I prefer conservative, Republican, libertarian, and Constitutionally-minded sources. Why then, does Google push CNN and other left-wing news results on me so relentlessly? I occasionally have clicked CNN articles over the years, but CNN is a socialist, progressive leaning news source that I rarely read.

Despite knowing that about me, if I visit the Google News website, logged in as myself with Google’s personalized results for me, 5 of the top 15 (33%) news results are from CNN (see the screen shot and count them for yourself). Only 3 of the top 15 (20%) are from FoxNews, a source I’m much more likely to read. Of course, if it wasn’t for the fact that Google knew me, perhaps I wouldn’t see FoxNews at all and even more of the results would be from CNN.

In Google Discover, it’s the same story of pushing left-wing news even though they know I don’t prefer it. Google Discover is the news, pop culture, and other internet content feed that comes up on your mobile phone browser’s home screen if Google is your default home page. Google Discover says “we’ve made it our goal to help you uncover fresh and interesting content about things that matter to you.”

They are clearly failing at that goal with me, because my Google Discover feed has a constant influx of Trump-hating news from CNN and other socialist and communist-friendly internet articles that are of no interest to me. I’m no big Trump fan, but I’m not a Trump hater, and Google knows that, yet they bombard me with it anyway.

Final Straw: Google Couldn’t Find a News Story I Wanted to See

The final straw in getting me to turn off Google as my search engine was earlier this year when Google buried an unflattering story about a prominent socialist. I was listening to talk radio one day and heard the host mention that Marc Lamont Hill, a long-time political contributor at CNN, had told his followers to stop being not to be nice to the police because it is disrupting his Marxist revolution. He said, so I heard, that all police are part of a racist system in America so the race protesters should stop taking their pictures with police. Being nice to police, in his view, reinforces the view that the George Floyd death was the fault of a single bad police officer, rather than Marc Lamont Hill’s preferred narrative that all police are bad. This was an appalling statement, to me, so I wanted to find out if it was true and learn more.

 

marc lamont hill google vs duck duck go searchWhen I searched on Google, I could not find the story. I tried numerous search keyword variations, and scrolled through dozens of search results pages on Google, but I could find nothing about what Marc Lamont Hill said about not taking pictures with police. If Google was my only source of information on the subject, I would think he never said it. The source on the radio was a trusted one, so I decided to do the same search on Duck Duck Go, a search engine that differentiates itself on searchers’ privacy and unfiltered results. On the very first Duck Duck Go search, the results page was full of articles about what he said about not taking pictures with the police, like this RedState article that quotes Marc Lamont Hill as saying:

“Don’t believe your lying eyes. If you and your community have been brought up with a respect for law enforcement, if you have come to see police as friends or even friends of the family, that doesn’t serve our Marxist, revolutionary purpose. So, cut it out or stay home!”

Conclusion and How to Turn Off Google as Your Search Engine

This is not a comprehensive list of all the reasons why I am abandoning Google as my search engine of choice. But in summary, Google has long abandoned the unofficial motto they had early in their history to “not be evil.” They clearly want to use their position of power to push information they want to be seen and hide information they don’t want seen. I hope to stem that tide of this indoctrination by not using the Google Search engine, and I would encourage all others to do the same.

Now the question is how to get the other Google products out of my life, which they are also using to collect information in an attempt to have power over me–products like Google Maps, Gmail (I don’t use it but family members do), Google Classroom (again, not for me, but it has infiltrated my kids schools), Google Chrome, Google Home, YouTube (owned by Google), etc. This purging of Google could take a while.

If you want to join me in turning off Google as your search engine, there are many ways to do it. You can start your internet journeys at Bing.com, Yahoo.com, DuckDuckGo.com, or other search engines. If you use the Chrome browser, you should also go to “Settings” located under the three vertical dots in the top right corner of your Chrome browser. There you can click “On startup” to set what page, often a search engine, comes up when the browser is launched. You should also set the “Search Engine” on the left menu to be Bing or Yahoo or something else. To use Duck Duck Go as the default search engine, you will need to add their Chrome extension which you can find by clicking here.

My Experience Attending a Conversation on Racial Inequality

My Experience Attending a Conversation on Racial InequalityIn early June 2020, I received an invitation to attend an online “conversation on racism and racial inequality.” This was just a week after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer–a week that saw riots in many major cities across the United States. Cries for racial equality and “black lives matter” were dominating media, news media and social media, as were the stories of much violence, property destruction, and looting.

Like anyone with a heart, I was appalled by the senseless death of George Floyd. His murder was tragic and unjust, and to the extent that things like this happen in our country, they need to be rooted out and eliminated. In the wake of all these events, the invitation to the meeting piqued my curiosity. I wondered if the meeting be a real, open discussion on race relations and the problems facing our society and potential solutions, or if it would be more of the extreme rhetoric and hollow virtue signalling that was dominating the media.

Placating the Mob with Statements that Perpetuate the Guilty Until Innocent Mentality

I had my suspicions of what the meeting might discuss, but I wanted to give the organizers the benefit of the doubt. You see, in the days prior to this meeting, many organizations were making public statements condemning racism against the black community. The organizers of this event were part of one of those statements. And like most of the ones I saw, the statement this organization put out said nothing to condemn the violence, rioting, and looting by the protesters, which was disappointing and indicated their lack of sincerity. A good example of this kind of statement was made by Apple.

It seems that thousands of people causing millions of dollars of damage that destroyed the livelihood of countless people (a great many of which are minorities) deserved as much a mention in a statement like that as the police brutality towards a black man. But the writers either disagree with that, or willfully ignore the criminal behavior of the mob, likely due to fear and a desire to appease the mob. A statement by the NAACP and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a notable exception. While condemning racism, prejudice, discrimination and hate, their statement also had the courage to “renounce illegal acts such as looting, destruction, and defacement of public or private property.” (see Locking arms for racial harmony in America)

On the one hand, if you are a business owner, I understand the pressure to make a statement in support of racial equality. There seems to be no harm in it–after all, if you are not racist, why not get behind a statement that denounces racism. On the other hand, it seems like making the statement only due to societal pressure feeds the guilty until innocent mentality that is so prevalent in the media and in our country. Meaning, the mob makes you feel like if you, or your company, don’t make a statement condemning racism, then you are guilty of racism. But let’s get back to the “conversation on racial inequality.”

Started Meeting by Declaring White Privilege

While I knew what I was likely in for in this meeting, I was still interested in what would be said. The person who spoke first introduced the topic and in the process, acknowledged their “white privilege” and made other statement like, “to our black colleagues, we see you.” The virtue signalling was thick. When the topic of white guilt came up so quickly, I wanted to throw up, mentally, if not physically. For this person, who has had a very successful career, to attribute their success in life to white skin seemed inaccurate and probably insincere.

Regarding the remark about “seeing” black community, of course we see them, but hopefully not only for their race—because that would be racism. The black civil rights movement was about seeing people for the content of their character, not the color of the skin. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

At some point, I’d like to write more about why I find confessions of “white privilege” problematic, but for the time being I’ll just say that if you feel the need to confess the source of your success, then consider giving credit to God. Thank the Lord for the bounteous blessings and privileges he has given you.

Presentation by Diversity and Inclusion Professional

After the brief intro, the remainder of the hour-long meeting was turned over to a university director of Diversity and Inclusion. The following are some notes on what this person said, along with my thoughts. The presentation had a Q&A at the end, but due to a prior commitment I couldn’t stay for that. So I’ll use my platform here to offer my comments and rebuttals.

  • Racial Profiling: She talked about her husband being pulled over by the police unjustifiably and other instances where he was racially profiled by the police. If true, these sounded like horrible events and I feel truly sorry that anyone would have to go through something like that. I sincerely hope we all can do our part to push for change in our country that will eliminate such injustices. Still, it concerned me when she took anecdotal evidence like that and jumped to the conclusions of systemic racism in the country.
  • The 1619 Project: She endorsed the New York Times series called “The 1619 Project.” I had heard a little about the 1619 Project prior to this meeting. I knew it was written by political extremists with a left-wing ideology, but little more. Since then, I’ve done more homework and found that the 1619 project is riddled with factual errors and presents a very negative view of the American founding. When confronted with the gross factual inaccuracies, the author defended her work by saying “The 1619 Project is not a history.” She said “It is a work of journalism that examines the modern and ongoing legacy of slavery.” Also see this statement by the NYT’s own fact checker of the 1619 project attesting to the many factual misrepresentations. You can reach your own conclusions about the 1619 Project, but it seemed inappropriate for the speaker to use this platform to further this work of opinion.
  • Police Incentivized to Imprison Black Children: She said that “it is in law enforcement’s interest to get black children into the prison.” I was floored by that generalization. She acted as if she had facts to back the statement up, but she never presented the evidence and I couldn’t follow her supposed logic. I thought it was quite unfair to make such a blanket negative statement about the police. In fact, the studies I have read, like this 2019 research by Michigan State University, shows no racial disparities in police officer actions.
  • Blacks Still 3/5ths of a Person: She said, “I would argue that blacks are still seen as 3/5ths of a person” in the United States. Obviously that is her opinion and I’m sorry she feels that way. But it is inconsistent and unfair for her to claim to be fighting against generalizing people based on race (racism), and then she makes huge generalities about the police and the people of our country. Furthermore, by referencing “3/5ths of a person” that way, she shows her own lack of historical context, as the 3/5ths clause was a method employed by the slavery abolitionists to take power away from the slave-holding south.
  • Our Criminal Justice System is the New Jim Crow: She said that “the new Jim Crow is the criminal justice system,” furthering her generalized views that there is institutional racism in our country. Again, her facts supporting this statement were weak. She cited the fact that black men are incarcerated at a much higher rate than whites and she left it at that. That statement is true, but the way she presented it was misleading because she implied that they are incarcerated unfairly. Studies show, however, that black men are incarcerated more because they commit more crimes than their counterparts in other racial groups. Take, for example, the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that black offenders committed 52% of homicides between 1980 and 2008, though they make up only 13% of the country. This is still a problem, but it is not a problem with the criminal justice system.
  • Only the Racial Majority can be Racists: At one point she echoed something I have heard for many years about how only people in the racial majority can be racists. By her definition, a black person cannot be racist against a white person and the problem of racism only exists among white people. This is obviously a perversion of the term racism. Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I think racism is any time you base your thoughts or actions solely on the color of a person’s skin–white or black or anything in between. There are obviously white racists and black racists, racists against Asians and against Native Americas. Racism is a human problem, not a white majority problem.

In conclusion, I was disappointed by the “conversation on racial inequality.” The “conversation” aspect was limited, and mostly it seemed like a platform for the speaker to air her grievances associated with her political ideology and to lecture about how unjust and racist our country is, all backed up with little more than anecdotal stories and opinions. Of course, there are pockets of injustice and racism in our country and I pray those will be eliminated soon, but overall, we are not an unjust country with systemic racism. Maybe next time the organizers can put together a “conversation on racial equality” that emphasizes the positive rather than the negative and talk about the progress our country has made in our 250 year history and focus on the steps we can take to continue to make the United States of America the greatest place to live on this planet.

The Quiet Majority

the quiet majorityI was listening to the Glenn Beck show the other day when one of his guests said that the silent majority needs to stop being so afraid and start speaking up. I would consider myself in the so-called silent majority–at least I hope rational, freedom-loving people like myself are in the majority. If you pay attention to big media (social media and news media), though, you probably will end up thinking we are in the minority.

Silently Living Our Lives the Right Way

As I listened to the podcast, I was taken back by the suggestion that we, majority or minority, are silent because we are afraid. Perhaps some people stay silent due to fear, but I’d like to think that most of us appear silent because we are busy trying to live our lives the right way. We are raising our kids, doing our jobs, spending time with family, volunteering at church, and trying to teach our children right from wrong. It is those apparently silent people who, to quote George Bailey, “do most of the working and paying and living and dying” in this country. It is the silent majority that has their heads squarely on their shoulders, has their priorities straight, and doesn’t pay too much attention to all the noise in mass media.

Quiet, Not Silent

As I thought about this subject, I decided the the word silent is not the right description of us—we’re just quiet, like the Still Small voice of God (1 Kings 19:12). In my experience, though sometimes God is silent, typically the reason we don’t hear Him is because we are not listening carefully. You do have to slow down, ponder, pray, and pay close attention to hear His Still Small voice.

The same is true with most of us—quietly letting our voices be heard for those with sense to hear it. We vote with our feet and at the polling booths. We peaceably and calmly participate in our democratic republic. We’re going to keep teaching our children that right makes might and not the other way around. Politicians and business leaders seem to be listening primarily to the loud voices these days, but if they were wise, they would pay attention to the quiet majority. In life and in politics and in business, if the only voices you listen to are the loud voices, you are likely to be go down the wrong path.

Though Quiet, There Is More to Do

Still, I think there is more that we, the quiet majority, can and should be doing—and I include myself in that admonition.

  • We need to find ways to quietly support the police, 99% of whom are great people. For example, my friend recently saw a policeman in line for food and paid for his lunch, and my wife’s friend took homemade cookies to a police station full of elated law enforcement officers.
  • We need to turn off TV and movies that insult our sensibilities. Too many of my family and friends tell me about the shows they watch that don’t follow good values and even glorify promiscuous sex, drugs, violence, and abortion. We have to stop watching these and when we do cease our viewing, the entertainment producers will hear our quiet protests.
  • We need to let media channels (online and over the air broadcasters) know when we can’t even watch theoretically family friendly sporting events because of inappropriate ads with sex, violence, and drugs for clearly TV-MA shows, half-time shows with nasty singers and dancers that have nothing virtuous about them, and so forth.
  • We need to find ways to course correct the education system that has been overrun with erroneous yet politically correct ideas. We need to stand up and say there is a difference between men and women and that’s wonderful. We need to teach that two wrongs do not make a right, and that there is objective truth in the world. We need to teach that all people are created equal—black, white, and any other color of the rainbow—and each is endowed by our created with inalienable rights.
  • Regardless of what happens with schools, in our homes, we need to quietly and confidently teach our children the truth about the past—the good and the bad. Erasing history and judging historical figures based on modern standards and incomplete information is arrogant and wrong. We stand on the shoulders of giants who came before us like Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. No one is perfect, but these imperfect men and women of the past paved the way for our blessed lives today and we ought to thank them for their contributions while learning from their mistakes.

The Loud Are Compensating with Volume

The loud voices in society would like us to believe that they outnumber us quiet ones. The real balance is anyone’s guess, but I know the quiet ones are larger in number than the loud ones want us to think. Take, for example, that Donald Trump was elected by half of Americans. Yet if you listen to most loud media sources (social or news), you’d get the impression that the majority of people hate Trump. Obviously, that’s not true. The country is divided politically, but the super loud media is using their volume and broadcasting reach to try to make the quiet ones feel like a small minority. Love or hate Trump (or feelings in-between like I have), it’s clear the loud media is trying to manipulate the truth and persuade our country to their way of thinking.

“Do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites”

We don’t have to be loud like the political and cultural extremists, but we do have to quietly go about doing good in this world and standing up for what is right. Followers of Jesus are taught: “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.” (Matt 6: 1-4, KJV)

It Only Takes a Small Light to Illuminate a Dark Room

The protests, boycotts, and seemingly endless virtue signaling is, in large measure, the trumpet sounds of hypocrites. Yes, we are supposed to be a light to the world (Matt 5:14), but it only takes a small light to illuminate a dark room. Therefore, I pray that the quiet, rational, freedom-loving, God-trusting people of this world will continue to go about doing good in “still small” ways and will stand strong for what is right in the face of loud pressure from the world.

10 Ways to Be Strategic with Web Analytics – Feb 2011 RootsTech Presentation

10 Ways to Be Strategic with Web Analytics RootsTech Feb 2011 by Jimmy SmithThis is a presentation I made many years ago at one of the first RootsTech conferences put on by the FamilySearch department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in February 2011. At the time, I was working as the Web Analytics Product Manager for the Church. They must have been desperate for speakers–not that I am a bad speaker, but because the content really wasn’t related to family history work or genealogy.

Anyway, I recently rediscover this presentation when I was looking through some old files. I was shocked at how relevant the content is all these years later. In fact, I could almost give this exact same presentation at a digital marketing analytics conference today and it would be just as true, relevant, and insightful as it was then. In fact, I may do that.

As I recall, as I was working with the team to put together the slide deck, there was some ruckus about what images could be used, and copyright issues, and so forth. Finally, I just decided to use my own pictures–photos I took so I could have complete control of how they would be used. So I ended up doing a photo shoot with my kids. I told them what poses to strike and it turned out very nicely. I’m glad I did it.

So without further ado, here were my top 10 ways to be strategic with digital analytics:

  • 10. Keep Your Eye on the Prize: Your Web site exists for a purpose, find it, articulate it, and work towards achieving it. Design the site around that goal. Look at metrics that relate back to that goal and continuously work to improve.
  • 9. Not everything that can be counted counts: Web Analytics cannot exist in a vacuum. It exists for no other purpose other than improving site performance. “You can learn many interesting things by analyzing data.  But you should only spend your time looking at info that identifies opportunities for improvement.” (Actionable Web Analytics Page 53)
  • 8. Be Compelling: You might not be a PhD statistician or know how to run a multi-variate test or know how to set intervals with two standard deviations, etc., but you can still be compelling.
  • 7. Data Beats Guesses: The probability of making the right decisions for website design is dramatically improved when you use even the tiniest amount of empirical data.
  • 6. Questions Before Data: We must understand the difference between a business question and a report request. Rather than trying to respond to report requests, ask: What business problem are you trying to solve?
  • 5. Ask “So What?” Three Times: “Ask every web metric you report the question “so what” three times. …If at the third “so what” you don’t get a recommendation for an action you should take, you have the wrong metric.” (Avinash Kaushik)
  • 4. Use a Balanced Scorecard: Any one metric can be manipulated. Instead, try getting multiple metrics to improve simultaneously.
  • 3. Look at trends rather than level: My boss once asked how confident I was in the precision of a web analytics figure. I said “low” but that I had a high degree of confidence in it’s upward trend over time and it’s context relative to other metrics.
  • 2. Align Goals and Tactics: If you have aligned your website content and features with your goals, the metrics on those tactics will be indicators of how well you are performing against your high level goals.
  • 1. Hold People Accountable. Accountability drives adoption and change. If there is no accountability for the performance of metrics, there will be no improvement.

What Losing My Job Taught Me About the Best Sources of Social Welfare

last day at work at Church 2015

This was me on my last day at work when I voluntarily left my job of over seven years for a new job. The new job only lasted three months and I wasn’t so happy upon leaving it.

Summary:In my time of need, when I lost my job, the one institution that came to my aid was not church or government, it was the family–the program instituted by God that works phenomenally well and does so without taxes, without bureaucracy, and without compulsion. The best form of welfare comes from the family and it deserves our greatest love, devotion, protection, and strengthening. 

I wrote a draft of this article several years ago but didn’t publish it for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the freshness of some of the events. With it years in the past and with the upcoming presidential election year upon us in which there will be many debates between socialism and free market capitalism, I think it is now time to publish it.

Some years ago, I was unexpectedly fired from my job. I have heard a lot of stories over the years of people turning that kind of lemon into lemonade, and while it is my faith that all things have happened according to the goodness, mercy, and blessing of God, it was still a very difficult transition in many ways for me and my family. Thankfully, I was able to bounce back relatively quickly into the full-time work force, but during those difficult weeks of unemployment, I did learn an important lesson about to social safety nets, both public and private, that provide welfare assistance to families in need. I found there was a relationship between the proximity of the welfare to the family and the reliability and helpfulness of the welfare. Welfare from family sources was the fastest and best kind, even above and beyond the call of duty, whereas welfare from the government paid safety net was unreliable and in our case, a near complete failure.

Background of Losing My Job

In April of that year, I intentionally left my long time job at a non-profit organization. I enjoyed my work there for over seven years, but I felt that in the interest of furthering my professional career, I needed to move on. In May, I started a job with a small but growing local software company. The opportunity looked ideal, but it soon soured. My boss and I didn’t see eye to eye on many topics, and I found that some of the leadership of the company lacked integrity. I was trying my hardest to make it work, but one day, after three months on the job, I got pulled into a conference room and was let go.

I was shocked. I had never been fired in my life. I’m a hard worker, smart, well-educated, professional, non-combative, and a good team player. I never dreamed that someone would fire me, but all of a sudden I found myself in that unenviable situation. My thoughts immediately turned to concerns for the welfare of my family. What if I’m unemployed for an extended period? How will I pay my mortgage? How will I pay for food, clothes, and the other necessities of my family?

I went out to my car and I immediately called my wife. I was still in shock and near disbelief. She was angry, not at me but at the situation. To her credit, she was 100% supportive and encouraging and willing to make the sacrifices necessary to get our family through this tough situation.

#1 and Best Source of Welfare, Yourself

In our faith, the godly principles of self-reliance are taught and exemplified. The Church teaches it’s members to live prudently, save for a rainy day, be prepared for emergencies, and have a storage of food, supplies, and other needs. While not prepared as we could have or should have been, we did have a little money saved and we had a modest amount of food storage. We looked over our budget and tightened it as much as possible and given our savings, we thought we’d be able to survive for a few months on our own. There was no need to panic.

But while there was no immediate need to panic, we still knew that if the unemployment or underemployment lasted much longer than a couple of months, we knew we were in trouble and we were already worrying about what we would do then. We began to consider our options to get help through social welfare programs, government assistance, our church welfare, and so forth.

Second Best Source of Welfare, Extended Family

We knew we had family who would be willing to help us, and as soon as they found out about our situation they did just that. Without even being asked, my father, my father-in-law, and two of my brothers gave my family some money to help take care of our needs. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it helped and was enough to cover our mortgage for a month. I know if the unemployment was to continue, they would also continue to help. And as I would find out as time went on, this help from family was the only welfare that would come through, despite efforts to receive welfare assistance from Church and government sources.

Next Best Source of Welfare, The Church

I didn’t initially want to ask for assistance from my church, but a few weeks into my unemployment, after discussing the situation with trusted family and friends, they encouraged me to save what cash I had for other things and let the church give my family food assistance. It humbled me greatly to approach my local church leader and ask for that help for my family. I met with him and asked for the food assistance and said that he would be happy to help and that he would have the appropriate people in our church contact me to get the ball rolling.

A few weeks went by and we still hadn’t been contacted by the food assistance people at our church. I assume our church leader innocently dropped the ball and never made the appropriate call to get going on our welfare assistance. About a month after losing my job, I had landed a new job, paying much less than my old one, but still it was something. Therefore, we didn’t look further into the aid from our church. I’m sure we mistakenly fell through the cracks of the Church system and if we had reminded them, the arrangements for aid would have come through. Still, this is one of the reasons I put Church welfare as less reliable than family welfare sources. Though I still have complete confidence that Church welfare is better and more reliable than government welfare.

Government Welfare Failure #1: Unemployment Programs

While we like being self-sufficient and prefer utilizing private sources of welfare, we thought since we have always been tax payers, we would should look into using the government sponsored welfare programs that our tax dollars have already been paying into. The first government program I looked into was unemployment insurance. I looked up the website for my state unemployment office and after some frustrating and fruitless time there, I found a phone number and called them. I was connected with a nice woman at their office, and after answering several questions, I was informed that I did not qualify for unemployment benefits.

She said that I had been with my last employer for too short of a time (3 months) to qualify for unemployment benefits. I believe most states require a minimum of 20 weeks of work before you are eligible for unemployment benefits. I then asked the woman if my seven years of work for the non-profit qualified me for any unemployment pay, but I was again denied. She said that the non-profit company I worked for doesn’t pay into the unemployment system (I presume, perhaps, they have an exemption) and therefore their employees are not allowed to participate in state unemployment benefits. I was disappointed that I had been in the full-time work force for so many years, dutifully paying my local, state, and federal taxes yet after a thorough investigation, I wasn’t eligible to get a single tax dollar back through unemployment programs.

Government Welfare Failure #2: COBRA Insurance

I had often heard of COBRA health insurance, but I really didn’t know much about it. I did some research and found that COBRA stands for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. It’s a law passed in 1985 that, among other things, gives health insurance companies the ability to continue to cover some employees after leaving employment. I don’t understand all the ins and out of the law, because I stopped investigating it when I found out that COBRA insurance is an optional program for employers and my last employer had opted out of participating in it.

Government Welfare Failure #3: Emergency Room Financial Assistance

The week after I lost my job, we were visiting family in another state. I was playing basketball with some family and friends and I collided with another player and split my head open just above my eye. It was bleeding profusely and the other players immediately took me to the emergency room. I could hardly believe my luck, or the lack thereof. I had been playing basketball two or three times a week for the prior 8 years without ever having a serious injury, and the week after I lose my health insurance, a basketball injury sends me to the emergency room.

I ended up getting six stitches and a really bad black eye. At the hospital, I told the attendants that I didn’t have health insurance and they gave me the number for their financial aid office. They didn’t collect anything while I was in the ER but a week or so later, I got a bill for over $1,000. I contacted the financial aid office, as I was instructed, but I was denied any benefits because I was not a resident of the state of the hospital that treated me.

Government Welfare Failure #4: Medicaid

Medicaid is a government health insurance program I knew about that is designed to help the poor in our country get healthcare. I had no idea if me and my family would qualify for Medicaid, so I began to look into it. The government websites were confusing and didn’t answer my basic question: would someone in my situation, who just lost his job and has a family to take care of, qualify for Medicaid. I next called the Medicaid office and after way too many menus and waiting on hold for 30 minutes, I finally was able to talk to a real person. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to help me either except to point me to a 19-page application form. She said that the only way she could tell me if I qualified for Medicaid was if I filled out this mammoth, 19-page form!

At this point, having been unemployed for only a couple of weeks, and doubting that I would even qualify, I opted not to spend an entire day filling out the Medicaid form. I thought my days would be better spend job hunting and putting in employment applications. Had my unemployment drawn on longer, I probably would have acquiesced and completed the form, luckily, it never came to that. But I was disappointed that simply eligibility questions could not be answered without filling out an overly lengthy and complicated application form.

Conclusion

We, collectively, spend millions of dollars in our churches on welfare programs to help the poor and needy. In our government, we collect (from tax payers) and spend billions of dollars on social welfare programs of every variety. Yet in my time of need, not a single one of those church or government programs was able to help me. The one program that was able to help me was the program instituted by God–the family. The one institution that did come to our aid and helped my family when we were unemployed was family.

So in a time of debate about expanding government programs, like Medicare for All and so forth, I share my experience as a cautionary tale. I think it is foolish to continue to throw money into giant, bloated, bureaucratic government welfare programs that clearly do not work. These programs do not need to grow or be expanded, they need to be streamlined and made to be more efficient and effective. And instead of investing more in programs that do not work, what we need to do is strengthen the family, the institution that works phenomenally well and does so without taxes, without bureaucracy, and without compulsion. The family is the best social safety net, and it deserves our greatest love, devotion, protection, and strengthening.

Democratizing Digital Analytics with Google Data Studio

On Dec 3, 2019 I spoke at Digital Summit Dallas about how I was able to better democratize digital analytics with Google Data Studio in my work at Hilti. If you saw the presentation and want the deck, you can download it from Slideshare. If you missed the presentation, feel free to watch the video or read a rough transcript of my speech below. Enjoy.


John Wanamaker (1838 –1922) is considered by some to be one of the pioneers of modern marketing. Wanamaker started the first department store in Philadelphia and he pioneered a radical new policy–that customers could return goods to get their money back. Wanamaker was the first known retailer to place a half-page newspaper ad (in 1874) and the first full-page ad (in 1879). He was innovative and creative in his work, and he was one of the first proponents of the power of advertising. But Wannamaker had challenges regarding marketing data that he was never able to overcome in his lifetime. A popular saying illustrating how difficult it was to quantify the results of marketing in that era is attributed to Wanamaker. He said: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wanamaker)

Then: Dearth of Data. Today: Drowning in Data.

The problem John Wanamaker had in improving and making the most of his marketing efforts was a lack of data. The problem we have today is, in some regards, the complete opposite—we are drowning in data. We are operating in a business environment today where we can know where every dollar is spent and exactly which tactics drive business results, down to specific ad placement and copy. We have data from Google Ads, website analytics data, SEO data, and social media data. We have customer sales data, competitor data, and the list goes on and on. Yet just because there is a flood of data available to us, doesn’t mean marketers are using it to drive performance improvements in our marketing campaigns.

Most Companies Leverage Little or No Marketing Data

A 2017 study on the analytical maturity of marketing organizations was published by DataFloq that reported that 42% of companies can only run rudimentary reports on past marketing performance, and 13% of companies don’t even know where to find their marketing data and thus don’t utilize it at all. That combines to 55% of companies that leverage relatively little or no marketing data to improve performance (https://datafloq.com/read/data-driven-marketing-2017-marketers-data-critical/2859).

companies leverage little or no marketing data

De·moc·ra·tize (verb), to make accessible

Again, the problem isn’t the lack of data, but the lack of data democratization. And by democratize, I do not mean the first dictionary definition of the word, the common connotation of the democratic form of government with voting rights and so forth. I mean the second definition of democratize which is “to make (something) accessible to everyone.”

What is Google Data Studio?

And while I am defining things, I should probably also define Data Studio. It is a relatively new product from Google that was introduced in 2016 and only came out of beta in 2018. It is a data visualization tool similar to Tableau or PowerBI. It can be used to create dashboards and reports, and like many tools from Google, it is free to use.  You can bring data into Data Studio from a variety of sources such as:

  • Google Marketing Platforms (Google Ads, Analytics, Display & Video 360)
  • Google consumer products (Sheets, YouTube, and Search Console)
  • Databases (BigQuery, MySQL, and PostgreSQL)
  • Flat files via CSV file upload and Google Cloud Storage
  • Social media (Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter)

What this Talk is and is Not

Before I go further, I want to be clear that this is not a paid commercial for Google or their Data Studio product. I have no affiliation with Google, other than as a customer and user of their products like most of you. Nor is this talk designed to be a step by step demonstration of how to build reports in Data Studio or how to use all the features. There is plenty of online documentation if you are looking for that kind of help. What this talk is, is a story of how Data Studio has helped me democratize digital analytics data for increase usage by the marketing team, thus making us a more data-driven organization. And hopefully in the process of telling that story, you will get some ideas for how you can use this tool in your work.

Data-Driven Quest

I am a believer in the power of data and I have been on somewhat of a quest throughout my career to make the marketing world more data driven. I had the privilege to start my career in a very data-driven company—FedEx. There I learned many best practices about how to use data in marketing tests to determine what is most effective, but not all companies are as data-driven as FedEx. In fact, a few years later I found myself working for a large, non-profit organization where I oversaw web analytics. The cultural difference between FedEx and the non-profit was dramatic, particularly with regard to being data-driven. To be fair, it wasn’t that the non-profit organization didn’t want to utilize data, it was just hard to quantify the output of many of the activities they were engaged in.

Employees’ Use of Web Analytics Tool

I was frustrated that though my colleagues had access to vast data and reports that could have been used to inform decisions about marketing and the website, it went largely unused. For example, the company had installed Omniture SiteCatalyst, now Adobe Analytics, to track the analytics of the website, yet very few people logged in, looked at the data, or used the reports. Well, I set out to see if I could help change that.

I went on an internal awareness and training campaign to try to get those involved with the organization’s website and digital marketing efforts to utilize the wealth of analytics data at our disposal. Great strides were made, and much improvement was gained, yet at the end of the day, login data showed that only 40% of people with access to the analytics had logged into look at it over a six month period. Only 11%, logged into the web analytics platform on a monthly basis to look at data regarding the website performance. I’m sure, if you were to look at the usage data in your company, many of you would see similarly low rates of people logging into your digital analytics platforms.

Employees' Use of Web Analytics Tool

Hilti Digital Marketing Team

A few years later, I landed at my present company, Hilti. For Hilti’s US website, our digital marketing team produces an average of more than 50 landing pages a month for a variety of purposes, including education, awareness, technical documentation, and marketing activities. As I dug into the data for these pages, I became aware of opportunities for improve of the engagement metrics, particularly with regard to the conversion rates and bounce rates.

Evolution of Digital Analytics Reports at Hilti

Still on my journey to make the marketing world more data-driven, I once again set about to democratize the web analytics data at Hilti. It was a winding road before I finally arrive at the Data Studio solution, but this is how it happened.

  • SharePoint. One of the first things I tried was putting the digital analytics reports on Microsoft SharePoint. Hilti had a robust intranet built on SharePoint, so I gave it a shot, posting monthly reports and other supplemental reports on SharePoint. Despite my efforts, it never took hold. It was too difficult to find and access, and the layout options and features were restrictive. I stopped doing it after a year or so.
  • Google Analytics. Next, I started to try to get the team to use Google Analytics reports more. I began doing training classes and sending out reports for Google Analytics. We saw modest improvements from this effort, but ultimately is was not as successful as I had hoped. We ran into access issues as well as issues with the flexibility, or lack thereof, in GA reports.
  • PowerPoint. Then I migrated into reporting through PowerPoint slide decks. This was more effective in our organization, but it was mainly high-level performance metrics. The reports were primarily shared via email and they were was not scalable for reporting on metrics for individual campaigns. While it had it limitations, these PowerPoint reports saw some success and I continue to use them today. But it wasn’t the kind of huge success I was hoping for, so I kept looking.
  • Power BI. Next I tried using Microsoft’s Power BI tool to create and democratize the digital analytics data. I liked a lot of things about Power BI, but ultimately, we had too many access issues. Licenses were limited and usage of the reports was also severely limited. I haven’t given up yet on Power BI, there are more and more people in our organization using it, so it may yet catch on. But it wasn’t the success I was hoping for to democratize the digital data.
  • Data Studio. Then one day in 2018 I decided to give Data Studio a try. It was still a beta product from Google at the time, but I had heard good things about it. When I tried Data Studio, I found it was easy to learn, and I had lots of flexibility in designing reports. The dashboards were easy to share, and scalable so I could build one report that could be used on many pages or campaigns. And you know what, this amazing thing happened, when I shared the Data Studio reports, my colleagues actually started using them. They voluntarily told me how much they appreciated the reports and they began asking questions about the data and asking for enhancement, which I made and will detail later. I would walk by colleague’s desks and see them using the Data Studio reports I had created and this gave me great satisfaction. From my experience, this type of high usage of digital marketing reports was rare and I knew I was on to something great.

What Makes Data Studio Superior to Other Solutions

Even if you are using Data Studio to only report on Google Analytics data, I have found it to be a superior medium of getting the data into the hands of marketing decision makers. The benefits of Data Studio can be summarized into these three areas:

  • Flexibility in Design and Layout: Google Analytics dashboards have many limitations such as a max of 12 widgets and they force you to use a three column grid and there are other look and feel constraints. With Data Studio, you have much more flexibility in how to arrange charts and graphs however you like. You can add brand themed colors and images, and overall you’ll run into fewer design and layout limitations. For me, I love the flexibility to put all the essential data, charts, and graphs on a single page report that I can give to my marketing partners and Data Studio gives me that ability.
  • Interactive Elements and Filter Controls: One of the things I really like about Data Studio is the ability to add filter controls and other end-user customization elements. Filter controls let me build a single report that can be used for reporting on countless pages and campaigns. Filter controls give end users of the report the ability to select a specific page or campaign that they are interest in and the report refreshes to be based on that selection.
  • Sharing and Ease of Access: The ease of sharing and granting access to other is a major reason why I think Data Studio has taken hold with our marketing team. I can have complete control of permissions and who can access the report, yet sharing it is as easy as copying the URL and sending the link to a colleague. Most people are already logged into their Google Account, with Data Studio reports, there is no separate login and no requirement to navigate around a menu system trying to find the right report. The link takes them straight to the report.

First Data Studio Report Landing Page PerformanceFirst Data Studio Report—Landing Page Performance

Above is a screen shot of the first report I made for Hilti in Data Studio. I wanted to put all the most important metrics about how a landing page was performing on a single, one-page report and this is what I came up with. Please excuse the lack of aesthetic beauty—that’s not my forte. I’m more of a function over form kind of guy. And this was a first iteration design anyway.  At least I did incorporate the Hilti Red color scheme. Let me point out the features of this report:

  • Filter Control for the Page URL: In the top left, you have the filter control for the page URL. When the report end user clicks this filter control, a drop down menu appears listing all the pages on the website. The user can select one or multiple pages, but the report was designed to show the data on only one single page. When the user selects the page for which they want to view data, the report refreshes and presents only the data for that page.
  • Date Range Widget: In the top left you also have the date range widget. Data Studio allows you to put a fixed data range on the report, or you can use a control like this to allow the end user to set whatever date they want. Even if the date selector is on the report, you will still have a default date range, which is 28 days unless you change it.
  • Pageviews, Users, Logged In Users, CTA Events: On the top right of the report, I have four important metrics–pageviews, unique users, logged in users, and call-to-action events, which is generally the measurement to track page conversions.
  • Pageviews Trend: Next I have a line chart on the left side of the report showing pageviews over the date range of the report.
  • Traffic Sources: To the right of that, we have the default traffic channels and then more specific traffic sources.
  • Time on Page, Exits, Bounce Rate, and Page Value: The next chart has the page title associated with that URL and as you can see I leave room for more than one page title. Ideally, there would only be one page title for a URL, but the ideal often doesn’t happen. In this chart I list the pageviews, time on page, exits, bounce rate, and page value for each page title.
  • Previous Page Path: Next is a chart with the previous page the visitor was on before getting to the page in question. Unfortunately, Google doesn’t have an automated way to dynamically pull the next page path or I would have put that on the report as well.
  • Calls-to-Action: Then we have the precise name of the call-to-action that the visitors of the page click. Most of our landing pages have one primary call to action, and several secondary or tertiary calls to action.
  • Devices: Then on the bottom left, we have the device type pie chart to let us know if visitors come on desktop, tablet, or mobile devices.
  • Geo-Location: On the bottom right is a simple geo-location report to tell us where people are from who visit the page.
  • SEO Keyword Data: The two bottom middle charts contain SEO data pulled from Google Search Console (GSC). I wanted the landing page report to be as comprehensive as possible, and so since Data Studio lets you blend the GSC and Google Analytics data sources, I thought I’d give it a try.

Landing Page Report Quickly Gains Popularity

The landing page report quickly gained popularity. It was a concise one-page summary of the webpage performance, and it also allowed the end user to drill down into more detail. It was easy to access and easy to share. It allowed our digital marketing specialists, who build the pages on our site, to quickly find how a page is performing and glean insights into how the page could be improved.

In the months that followed I received feedback and made several changes to the Data Studio dashboard. The nice thing about this reporting process with Data Studio is that I could make these improvements without changing the URL of the report, so all my marketing colleagues could get the updates without me having to send out a new link. Let me review some of the enhancements I have made to the report.

Second Data Studio Report Landing Page Performance

  • Removed Google Search Console Data: One major draw back of the original version of the report was that it was super slow to load. The processing required to blend the GA and GSC data sources was the cause of the slowness, so I ended up removing the GSC data points for SEO keywords. Later, I ended up making a separate Data Studio report for SEO that exclusively uses GSC data.
  • Data Control for Other Hilti Country Websites: When our eBusiness team started using the landing page report, one of the first enhancements they requested was if there was a way to share the report with our European colleagues so they could check on the performance of pages on their country websites. This, as it turns out, was easy to do with the data control filter. I simply put this drop down menu in the top left corner of the report where the end user could select to view data from the Google Analytics of a different country website. Hilti has each country website set up in a different property in GA, so if the end user of the report had access to that GA data, they could select their country website data. Then, in the drop down menu for selecting a page, they will only see the pages from that country site as options. With this data control filter, I was able to share the report with colleagues in England, France, Germany, and elsewhere.
  • Page Scroll Depth Data Added: With the GSC SEO data removed from the landing page report, I had some spare room and so I added a section on scroll depth. Scrolling is not something GA tracks by default, but you can add code to your website to track scrolling as a custom event, and our development team did that. The scrolling data, I felt added some good depth to our measures of customer engagement with the page.

The landing page report, is, of course, a living document, so there are other changes I have made and will continue to make to it as we move forward.

Other Versions of the Landing Page Report

Other enhancement requests that my colleagues made required me to make separate versions of the landing page report. Again, it wasn’t too hard to copy a data studio report and then make alterations to the copy without changing the original. In the top menu of any Data Studio report, there is a copy button. Below are some of the other versions of the landing page report I have created.

  • Version that Keys Off Page Title, rather than URL: Another enhancement that was requested was to be able to pull landing page reports based on the page title, rather than URL. This helped some of our less technically savvy friends the marketing department. Also, while I wish URLs would remain constant, there are times when the same page has multiple URLs, so this enhancement allowed us to look at the page performance by title regardless of the changed URL.
  • Version that Excludes Hilti Employees: Another requested enhancement I received was when one day someone asked how much of the traffic to a page was generated by Hilti internal employees compared to non-employees. We don’t have perfect methodology to identify employee traffic on the site, but if an employee is logged into the website or is located at our main offices, then we can identify them. So again, I made a copy of the report, and this time I used a custom segment to only bring in data from the segment of users that are not employees.
  • Version for Pages with Videos: Then one day we were looking at the landing page report for a page where the major call to action was to watch a series of videos. So I created a version of the landing page report that included video metrics.

Other Reports Created in Data Studio

I have spent a lot of time of the landing page report, but in the time remaining, let me briefly go over some of the other reports I have created for Hilti using Data Studio.

  • SEO Report from GSC Data: I mentioned that early on in my usage of Data Studio I realized I needed to keep the GSC sourced data in a separate report. The SEO page report, like the landing page report, has a page selector at the top. If you don’t select a specific page, it will report on all pages for the website. But of course you can select a single page to see it’s SEO performance. On the left is how the page is doing on branded keywords. On the right are the metrics for non-brand keyword performance in the areas of organic rank, search impressions, clicks, and click thru rate.
  • Email Traffic by Campaign Report: This report also has similarities to the landing page report. Obviously, it looks very similar and again, I apologize for that. Data Studio really does have a lot of features to make reports look sharp, but up until now, I have been more concerned with the data and functionality, rather than the look and feel. At Hilti, probably like many of you, we send out a lot of emails. Our email service provider provides the email team a lot of stats about open rates and click thru rates, but once the email visitors gets to our site, the team had less data readily available. This report allows our email team to select any given email campaign from the drop down filter. Then they can see what visitors from the campaign did on the website, what pages they viewed and how many times they viewed them. And most importantly, it provides eCcommerce metrics such as how many orders they made and what products they bought. One other thing I should point out about the email campaign report is that I added a second page. While one of the things I love about Data Studio is the ability to have concise, one-page reports with a ton of great data, you can, of course, have multiple pages in your reports. On the second page, I put metrics to help our team see what time people are clicking through our emails and coming to the website.
  • Campaign Specific Reports: The final report I will mention is one I put together for a recent campaign we were running for our chemical anchor products. At Hilti, when we talk about anchors, it’s not boat anchors, we manufacture and sell concrete anchors for construction applications. Part of our suite of anchoring products consists of epoxy, adhesive, or chemical anchors. This past summer we had a marketing push around the chemical anchor line and this is the summary report I’ve put together to report on the performance of the chemical anchor pages. Part of the chemical campaign was also to publish several new pages with the goal of attracting more organic search traffic, so I created an SEO dashboard in Data Studio for the campaign as well.

Engagement Rates for Landing Pages See Marked Improvement

As you can see, we have used Data Studio to create a wide variety of reports and we have seen a lot of success in democratizing the data this way and getting the marketing team to pay attention to the data. But you may be wondering, what concrete benefits have we seen from using Data Studio? Sure the data is getting out there more, but is it really being used to improve the performance of digital marketing campaigns? The answer is yes, we have seen tangible results and here are two big ones.

Engagement Rates for Landing Pages See Marked ImprovementHere is a chart of the bounce rate and conversion rate for our landing pages over a year. Before we started using Data Studio for our reporting, we were seeing relatively steady bounce rates and conversion rates with room for improvement. When we started using Data Studio, those bounce rates began to decline and ended up stabilizing around a percentage roughly half of what they were before. And similarly, the conversion rates began to improve as we used Data Studio and have effectively doubled in the course of a year.

I’m not saying Data Studio was the only factor in these improved engagement rates—it was not. We have ongoing efforts to continually improve our landing pages and using Data Studio reports was only one aspect of our approach. But the correlation is undeniable—that using Data Studio to democratize web analytics data has been an important tool in helping us get data in the hands of marketing decision makers and they have used that data to improve the effectiveness of our marketing campaigns.

LinkedIn Notes We Are Drowning in Data. Data Studio Has the Solution.

As we wrap up, I like to share a quote from a LinkedIn article I ran across just a couple of weeks ago as I was preparing this presentation. The article was about how marketers are using digital analytics, and it pointed out, as I did at the beginning of this presentation, how digital marketers are drowning in data. The article said, “We found that digital marketers are struggling — struggling to calculate their impact, share that impact with key stakeholders, and market that impact across their organizations.” I found it interesting that they pointed out these three challenges with measuring, sharing, and making an impact across the organization. And it was quite timely, as I have pointed out, that you can overcome each one of these challenges with Data Studio. And when you do that, instead of drowning in data, you will be riding the data-driven wave. Thank you.

Lessons Learned from Doing SEO Freelancing for a Year

Summary: After doing SEO freelancing for a year, I learned important skills and gained invaluable experience in selecting clients, estimating work load, negotiating payment, measuring success, establishing processes, succeeding in the short-term and long-term, and perhaps most importantly, in learning to follow my heart.

Background Motivation to Do a Side Hustle

bathtub leaking into kitchenIn 2018, we hit a financial rough spot in which my family had several thousand dollars of unexpected expenses within a one month period. My car broke down and that cost $2,500 to repair and the family van had a $1,000 repair for some weird electrical problem. The water heater in our house burst and it was over $1,000 to replace. The upstairs bathroom shower faucet broke and it started leaking into the kitchen—another $1,000 to repair. And there were several other items that I do not now recall.

My daughter was approaching her 16th birthday and we had been saving up money so she could have my old car to drive and then I was planning to buy myself a new (used) car. But all of a sudden, virtually all the money we had been saving to buy a new car was gone, and that’s when I thought I should look into doing some freelancing to make some extra money. By profession, I am a digital analytics manager who has a lot of experience managing websites and performing search engine optimization (SEO). I thought I could make some time for digital marketing consulting, maybe 10 or 15 hours a week, by working nights and weekends.

Selecting a Freelance Website

My first item of business was finding somewhere to get freelance work. Years ago, I had hired a freelancer through Upwork.com, so that was my first destination when I began looking to do freelance work. Honestly, I didn’t do as much research as I should have when it came to selecting which freelance website company to work through. I picked Upwork because they were the most prominent freelance website I was aware of. In retrospect, I would have researched the competition (like Fiverr.com and Freelancer.com) to compare fees and terms of service.

Signing up with Upwork, searching for and securing my first freelance gig cost me nothing. But once I began working, I was shocked that Upwork charged a 20% fee on every dollar I billed my client, though that fee did go down to 10% after the first $500 billed. Even more shocking, though, was Upwork’s user agreement which states that freelance/client relationships made through their website must use their system to complete payment transactions FOR 2 YEARS. That means, if you connect with someone through Upwork, you agreed that you will pay Upwork their service fees for two years for all work done. That seems like an outrageously long time to me, so be aware of that going in.

Lesson Learned #1: Do competitive research of fees and terms of service of freelance websites before signing up and making an agreement with a client so you know beforehand exactly what to expect.

Finding My First Freelancing Gig

As I browsed the digital marketing related freelance gigs that I was qualified for, SEO ones where the most prevalent. I submitted my application to several of them. I had no idea how hard or easy it would be to get hired for one of these gigs, and like any job application, the hard part was taking the time to write a thoughtful, persuasive application letter even when you don’t know the likelihood that they’ll select you. But it had to be done. And then there was they issue of what hourly rate to charge. I checked out the competition and there are a lot of SEOs on the platform with low fees, along with a smaller number of ones with high fees. I ended up picking an hourly rate that was lower than what I wanted, but I felt I needed to do that to be competitive as I was getting my feet wet in the world of freelance SEO work. I thought that once I was established, it would be easier to get work at a higher rate.

A month or so went by without getting selected for an interview, and I was beginning to think this was a waste of my time, when one day I got asked to have a phone interview for one of the jobs. The phone interview went well, and I was soon offered the job. I had some debate with the client about whether the gig would be paid by the job or by the hour. I was pretty firm on doing it by the hour, as I didn’t want to get stuck in a commitment to do work that could drag on for a long time and thus diminish my hourly rate. The client was okay with me tracking the hours and paying by the hour, so we moved forward with an official agreement through the Upwork website.

Lesson Learned #2: Be patient in finding the right gig for you and it could lead to a great long-term working relationship, as you will see was the case for me.

I should also mention that the client asked if we could do the payments outside the Upwork website, thus avoiding their fees, as well as avoiding Upwork’s incredibly poorly designed user interface. It was an tempting offer, but knowing the Upwork User Agreement terms, I had to insist on using Upwork’s prescribed time tracking and payment system. I don’t think the client was trying to break the rules, they were just unaware and when I said I felt it was best to honor the Upwork terms of service, the client was fine with that, and so we moved forward.

Lesson Learned #3: Be prepared in case your client asks to pay you outside the freelance website and know how you will respond. It’s against the terms of most of the sites. Honesty is the best policy.

Analysis, Plan of Action and Understand Client’s Business

The client who hired me was a small digital marketing agency, which for anonymity’s sake, was run by a woman I will call Molly. We had agreed that I would put in about 10 or 15 hours a week, and Molly asked me to split my time between two of her clients which I’ll call Website A and Website B. I dove right into analyzing the SEO performance of the two websites, as well as diving into the Google Analytics to understand how the sites were performing overall. By the end of the first month, I had presented my SEO and web analytics findings to Molly and the website owners, and offered my recommendations for improvement and suggested next steps.

Website A and B were both the online home for small technology companies, and both companies used their website as a major source of sales and lead generation. Website A got a couple thousand visits per week, while Website B, a smaller niche business, was getting a couple hundred visits per week. Both sites had good things going for them in terms of branding, content, and design, but both were also lacking some basic SEO best practices such are optimized titles tags, meta descriptions, H1 headlines, interlinking, and more. Both sites also had an information architecture (IA) and main menu lacking in high-value SEO keywords.

With both sites, I should mention that it took several conversations with the site owners to really understand their business, the products and services offered, as well as their target audience. It was particularly difficult to grasp the business model of Website B, the more niche business, but once I did, a course of action to make the content resonate better with their audience and with search engines became clear. And thus far, the freelancing was going very smoothly—I was enjoying the work and earning a little extra income, everything I had hoped for.

Lesson Learned #4: In scoping out SEO freelancing projects, be sure to bake into your estimates time to get to know the company, target audience, products and services. Having a well-rounded understanding of the business will make you a better SEO consultant.

Performance Measuring and SEO Results for Website A and Website B

Over the next couple of months, we implemented the course of action I had laid out to improve the SEO, usability, and conversion rates of the two websites. Both sites were built on WordPress, a website content management system (CMS) that I am very familiar with, so I was quite comfortable not only developing the strategy, but executing it as well. While the freelance contract had been for SEO services, it was clear that the website owners wanted help in many other aspects of their web presence and digital marketing. At the end of the day, I knew the website owners would only be happy if the increase in organic web traffic led to more leads and more website visitors turning into buying customers. Therefore, in addition to SEO tasks, many of my efforts were also around landing page optimization, reducing bounce rates, improving conversion rates, cleaning up web analytics tracking and reporting, and doing other digital marketing tasks.

Lesson Learned #5: Nobody wants to rank for rankings sake. SEO consulting isn’t just about improving the website’s placement in search results, it’s about improving the volume of target audience visits and quality leads.

As part of the performance measurement plan, I put together a Google Data Studio report with some of the high-level SEO and website stats which I reviewed weekly with the website owners. The report served to benchmark prior website performance as well as communicate how my SEO efforts were paying off. This was important as a freelance consultant as I wanted the clients to know where the key performance indicators (KPIs) had been and how my efforts had improved them.

Within a month of implementing our first changes on the websites, we began to see some small improvements in the amount of organic search traffic to the sites as well as improvements in the conversion rate of visitors. After three or four months, Website A had doubled in traffic and with conversion rates doubling as well, the owner saw a four-fold increase in leads. And they were good leads too, many of them turning into paying customers. With Website B, the results were positive, but less dramatic as Website A, with traffic increasing by about 50% and slightly better conversion rates.

Lesson Learned #6: I already knew this, but it was reinforced that freelancers should always benchmark the SEO and website performance prior to their engagement as well as establishing regular reporting to communicate improvements in KPIs.

Overall, the owners of Website A and B were very pleased with the results, as was Molly who was thrilled to have such happy clients herself. It was then that I began to more fully realized how valuable my skill set was. I began to think that I had sold myself short with the low hourly rate I set at first, and I began to wonder if I should raise my rate. I also began to wonder if I should consider expanding the time I spent freelancing to see if it could turn into a legitimate full-time business for me.

Asking for a Pay Raise

At about this point in my relationship with Molly, I thought it was a good time to ask for an increase in my hourly rate. I had been doing the freelance SEO work for around six months and I had been trying for months to find the right time to bring up the topic. For someone of my personality, this is a difficult thing to ask for, but I was glad I finally did it. I asked for a substantial increase because I knew I didn’t want to do this again. Molly clearly didn’t want to lose me, but the increased rate was difficult for her to take. She made a counter proposal and I accepted it and we moved on—it seemed like a win for both of us.

Lesson Learned #7: Do research so you can price yourself right from the get go, but don’t be afraid to bring up the topic of your hourly rate. And, of course, it is best to have some success under your belt before asking for a pay raise.

Taking on a Third and Fourth Website for My Client

With the success of Website A and B, my client, Molly, asked if I thought I could take on additional clients of hers. I had been averaging about 8 or 10 hours a week on the freelancing work, and due to my full-time job and family constraints, I told her there was no way I could put in more hours. She said she would be bringing on additional junior SEO freelancers, though, and wondered if I could step back and play a more strategic role. I would continue to complete analysis and set strategies, but the more junior SEOs would do the work of executing the tactics. I had been enjoying all the work I was doing for Molly and wanted to continue to expand my professional relationship with her and her agency so I decided to go for it.

Website C and D, did not turn out as well as A and B, for a variety of reasons. And though we didn’t see much SEO success with these two websites, I did learn many important lessons about freelance and agency work. Website C was owned and operated by some people who were very difficult to work with. Whereas the owners of Websites A and B were open to almost all of our ideas, the managers of Website C pushed back against a great many of our proposals. Ironically, they still demanded results even though they wouldn’t follow our recommendations. It was a difficult situation, and certainly above my freelancer pay grade. Thankfully Molly handled most of those end-client relationships, though this company didn’t remain a client for long.

Lesson Learned #8: Be selective about clients. From my perspective, no amount of money is worth it if the person you are working with is unreasonable and they make your life miserable.

Lesson Learned #9: Know yourself, your strengths, and your preferences. For me, if I ever go into business for myself doing digital marketing consulting or start my own agency, I want a business partner who will handle client relationships. It’s not my forte.

The managers of Website D, contrary to Website C, were very nice to work with. Like Websites A and B, Website D had a lot of log hanging fruit with regard to optimizing page titles, meta data, headlines, call-to-action buttons, and other content. Also like the others, an information architecture overhaul was implemented to put the topics that matter most to users higher up in the menu structure. But despite our efforts, and to my surprise, after a month or two, the organic search volume didn’t budge.

On top of the lack of SEO results, it seemed like each week we were uncovering unusual and unexpected issues with the website. Their WordPress implementation was outdated, with problematic plugins, and content was in disarray. On top of that, the site managers had been making changes to their homepage and other page without communicating it to us and in some cases messing up the SEO. The company had Google display ads running, and running very inefficiently, sending thousands of unqualified visitors to their site weekly. And they had three instances of Google Analytics on their site, so we wondered about the validity of any of the data we were looking at. The more we worked with the website, the more oddities and technical debt we seemed to uncovered.

Lesson Learned #10: Evaluate the state of the website backend before beginning optimization work and build into the scope of work plenty of time to do clean up. If the back end is in disarray, it can put a major hamper on optimization efforts.

Problems in Working with an Expanding Team of Freelancers

In addition to the problems with clients and client websites, as I had expanded my case load to handle four websites, the working model of me being the senior SEO strategist with the assistance of junior SEO freelancers was having bumps of its own. I began each website engagement with my normal thorough analysis, and then made a to-do list of things for the junior SEO to do. Unfortunately, the other freelancer was not accustomed to my way of communication and didn’t understand many of the tasks I gave her. Many of the important tasks went undone or were done the wrong way or simply in a way I was not accustomed to.

This particular junior SEO was used to going through a checklist as she gave a website an SEO tune up, while I, on the other hand, wasn’t accustomed to working in such a rigid process. I quickly began to see the benefits of the checklist, however. Though a list like that cannot cover every aspect of SEO, what it did cover was good SEO practices. And I realized the checklist allowed her to get much of the low hanging fruit, freeing me up to do deeper analysis and uncover issue less likely to turn up in a standardized checklist. In fact, I decided that a checklist could be a great tool in doing the initial analysis of a client and their website. Eventually, we worked out many of the kinks in our internal process and we began working together better.

Lesson Learned #11: It takes times to learn to work well with someone, so make time for it and don’t take teamwork for granted.

Lesson Learned #12: While checklists can be mechanical, rote, and less-than-comprehensive for qualitative evaluations, they can still be a helpful, time-saving tool, and a good way to delegate and a make sure you don’t forget anything.

Realizing the Freelance Work is Stretching Me Too Thin

After several months of working on Websites C and D, neither was showing much SEO progress, and the great progress we has seen in Website A and B was slowing down. Furthermore, I was personally being stretched incredibly thin trying to keep up on all the freelancing work while at the same time trying not to fall behind in my full-time day job and balancing the demands of a large family. While I had thoroughly enjoyed the freelance work for the first six or eight months of doing it, in the most recent months, I began to dread the work more and more. I have almost no free time as it is, and what little spare time I had was filled with the freelance work. I felt like I was not dedicating the time I should have to my wife and kids, yet we were all enjoying the extra income. The extra income allowed us to buy that third car for my daughter to drive, which was a huge benefit to my wife who no longer had to take her to and from school and other activities.hannah driving gold corolla car

Molly must have noticed that I was being stretched thin, and she suggested I hand off Website C and D to another freelancer, and return to dedicating myself wholly to Websites A and B. We made that transition, but I continued to be weary of the workload. I was taking on more responsibilities at my full-time job, and it became increasing apparent that I needed to spend more time with my family. I didn’t want to lose the extra income, but my health and my family were more important.

After nearly a year of doing the freelance gig, I happened to be on a family vacation. It’s always nice to have time off, but I particularly enjoyed the freedom from the demands of the freelance work. I dreaded getting back to real life and starting up with the SEO freelance work again. It was then that I realized that it was time to be done with the freelancing. When I made the mental decision to stop doing the freelance work, a feeling of peace and comfort (a feeling that I have learned comes from the Spirit of God) came over me letting me know that it was right. When I got home, I gave Molly notice that I could no longer do freelance work for her. She respected my decision, I wrapped up and handed off my projects, and we parted ways.

Lesson Learned #13: Trust in the feelings God puts into your heart and do as He prompts you. Decisions may be difficult, but the Lord is watching out for you, and will give you confidence to move forward.

Conclusion

It was a great experience to do freelancing for a year. I had many successes and also several failures, and in the process I learned much, as I have pointed out in the lessons learned above. I was able to accomplish my goal of earning some extra money to get a third car for our growing family. And in the process of freelancing, I learned skills and gained experience that will help me throughout my ongoing career, whether that continues in the in-house corporate SEO world or if it evolves into future consulting, agency work, or even freelancing again. While the time is not right to keep doing SEO freelancing right now, the time could be right again in the future. And if that time comes, I’ll be much more prepared.

Ward Temple and Family History Plan

Temple and Family History Plan - Rockwall 2nd Ward

A few months ago, I was called as Temple and Family History (TFH) Leader in our ward. Not long after that, February 28, 2019, Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles gave some instructions to ward leaders across the world encouraging them to formulate a “ward temple and family history plan” (see Ward Temple and Family History Leadership Patterns, Coordination Meetings, and Plans). He said the plan should…

  • “Include ways to lift the ward’s overall vision and attitude toward temple and family history work.”
  • “Involve every new convert, 11 years and older, in family history work.”
  • “Encourage, coordinate, and facilitate temple attendance without establishing quotas or reporting systems for temple attendance.”
  • Be “simple and clear”

We went to work in our ward to create this plan. As the TFH Leader, I felt I should put together the first draft and then present it to the TFH Consultants for their feedback. Next we discussed it in ward council, and made a few more modifications. What we ended up on for the TFH Plan is in the image at the top of this article.

Next, we planned a 5th Sunday lesson to present the plan to the ward. We made copies of this plan for everyone to take home with them and I created the presentation below to explain and expand on each of the 12 points of the plan. The lesson went well and seemed to be inspiring and uplifting. As part of the lesson, the TFH Consultants also introduced themselves and bore their testimony of temple and family history work.

The plan is admittedly high-level and an aspiration vision designed to inspire people and point them in the right direct for temple and family history work. Some people wanted more specificity and detailed action items to get started and accelerated down the path of family history and temple work, so I created the following one-page action plan that you can download. I took the 12 items from the TFH plan and expanded them into more detailed action items and then grouped them into logical groups. We ended up with eight groups that could conceivably be done in eight weeks and so I dubbed it an 8-week action plan. The plan could just as easily be done over an 8 month period if you don’t want to hurry and do it in a quick 8 weeks. Regardless of the time frame, this action plan provides the additional specificity for anyone up to the challenge.

Temple and Family History 8-Week Action Plan and Goals

Please note that the plan and the action items are only examples of temple and family history work one can do. It is not intended to be an exhaustive list. On a similar vein, the “Crawl-Walk-Run-Fly” rating scale is to be taken only as a self-evaluation. No one is keeping score of where you are.

Personal Covenants with God

Recently, some life experiences got me thinking about personal covenants we make with God–not covenants that are part of the standard ordinances of the Church like the sacrament, baptism, temple endowment, etc.–but other promises we personally make to God. Often when we face circumstances of severe trial or unusual distress, we reach out to God and ask for his special blessings and promise, if we can get those those, that we will do certain things for God in return. While these covenants differ from those made standard gospel ordinances, I have come to believe that they carry just as much power and potential for blessings from God, perhaps more so.

The scriptures have several examples of these non-standardized, personal covenants that individuals and groups of people have made with God. Hannah in the Old Testament and the people of Ammon in the Book of Mormon are two examples that stand out to me. I can also recall stories from our living prophets and apostles and other prominent leaders where they discuss making personal covenants with God. Two of which I will share are are from Elder Neal A. Maxwell and President Abraham Lincoln.

Hannah Covenants to Give Her Son to Service of the Lord

In the book of 1 Samuel, we are given the story of Hannah, who desperately wants a son and vows, if she should receive one, to give him to the service of the Lord. Hannah received assurance from the prophet Eli, and no doubt from the Holy Spirit of God to her heart as well, that God had accepted her covenant. Hannah was blessed with a baby boy soon thereafter and after the baby was born and old enough to leave his mother’s arms, Hannah was faithful to her side of the covenant with God. This story is found in 1 Samuel Chapter 1:

1) Now there was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim, of mount Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah…
2) And he had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah: and Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
5) … for he loved Hannah: but the Lord had shut up her womb.
10) And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the Lord, and wept sore.
11) And she vowed a vow, and said, O Lord of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head.
17) …Then Eli answered and said, Go in peace: and the God of Israel grant thee thy petition that thou hast asked of him.
18) And she said, Let thine handmaid find grace in thy sight. So the woman went her way, and did eat, and her countenance was no more sad.
19) …and Elkanah knew Hannah his wife; and the Lord remembered her.
20) Wherefore it came to pass, when the time was come about after Hannah had conceived, that she bare a son, and called his name Samuel, saying, Because I have asked him of the Lord.
24) …And when she had weaned him, she took him up with her, with three bullocks, and one ephah of flour, and a bottle of wine, and brought him unto the house of the Lord in Shiloh: and the child was young.
26) …And she said, Oh my lord, as thy soul liveth, my lord, I am the woman that stood by thee here, praying unto the Lord.
27) For this child I prayed; and the Lord hath given me my petition which I asked of him:
28) Therefore also I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he liveth he shall be lent to the Lord. And he worshipped the Lord there.

The Anti-Nephi-Lehies Bury their Swords in Covenant with God

The story of the people of Ammon who took upon them the name of Anti-Nephi-Lehi, has always fascinated me. These people were vile sinners and even murders, yet they were converted to the Lord and because of their wicked past, they felt a special need to make an extra, personal covenant with God. Because they felt so blessed by God, this group of people covenanted that they would not take up weapons of war again, even in self-defense, after God had cleansed them of their prior sins. The story is in the Book of Mormon, Alma chapter 24:

15) Oh, how merciful is our God! And now behold, since it has been as much as we could do to get our stains taken away from us, and our swords are made bright, let us hide them away that they may be kept bright, as a testimony to our God at the last day, or at the day that we shall be brought to stand before him to be judged, that we have not stained our swords in the blood of our brethren since he imparted his word unto us and has made us clean thereby.
16) And now, my brethren, if our brethren seek to destroy us, behold, we will hide away our swords, yea, even we will bury them deep in the earth, that they may be kept bright, as a testimony that we have never used them, at the last day; and if our brethren destroy us, behold, we shall go to our God and shall be saved.
17) And now it came to pass that when the king had made an end of these sayings, and all the people were assembled together, they took their swords, and all the weapons which were used for the shedding of man’s blood, and they did bury them up deep in the earth.
18) And this they did, it being in their view a testimony to God, and also to men, that they never would use weapons again for the shedding of man’s blood; and this they did, vouching and covenanting with God, that rather than shed the blood of their brethren they would give up their own lives; and rather than take away from a brother they would give unto him; and rather than spend their days in idleness they would labor abundantly with their hands.

The prophets and leaders of the church took this covenant by the Anti-Nephi-Lehies very seriously. Both parties went to great lengths to keep that covenant, even at the risk of their own lives, yet they were miraculously blessed and delivered for being faithful to their personal covenant.

Neal A. Maxwell Dedicates His Life to the Lord in a Covenant Prayer

The following story is take from A Disciple’s Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell by Bruce C. Hafen, chapter 13.

During the middle of the battle for Okinawa, Neal had the most transforming experience of all. He was part of a mortar squad that fired at Japanese positions hidden in the hills. His own mortar position created an obvious invitation for the enemy to locate and eliminate his firing capacity and him. They needed only to direct their own artillery and mortar fire at the place where Neal’s squad sent up its shells. By identifying his position and comparing where their shells hit, they could direct their fire closer and closer until they had done their deadly job.

One night in late May, the shrieking noise of artillery fire caught Neal’s attention with a frightening realization. Three shells in a row had exploded in a sequence that sent a dreadful message the enemy had completely triangulated his mortar position, and the next series of shots would hit home. Suddenly a shell exploded no more than five feet away from him. Terribly shaken, Neal jumped from his foxhole and moved down a little knoll seeking protection, and then, uncertain what to do, he crawled back to the foxhole. There he knelt, trembling, and spoke the deepest prayer he had ever uttered, pleading for protection and dedicating the rest of his life to the Lord’s service.

Neal later called this “one of those selfish, honest prayers” that many people offer in times of great stress. He didn’t feel entitled to anything in particular, and he knew many of his combat buddies prayed that night as fervently as he did. …After the prayer, Neal turned his attention again to watching the night sky, which was earlier ablaze with flashing, fiery noises. His body spontaneously tensed up as he waited, searching the darkness for sounds and clues. But no more shells came near him.

Later he wrote: After that triangulation occurred, the shelling stopped at the very time they were [about] to finish what they had been trying to do for days. I am sure the Lord answered my prayers. . . . The following night they began to pour [more] shells in [on our position], but almost all of them were duds either the ammunition had gotten wet or they were not exploding in the very thick, oozing mud. . . . I felt preserved, and unworthily so, but have tried to be somewhat faithful to that promise that was given at the time.

He would occasionally talk about those two nights in the years that followed, never offering more details about the experience but usually adding something like, “I foolishly thought at the time that I could pay the Lord back, and now, of course, I’m in greater debt to Him than ever.”

Abraham Lincoln’s Solemn Vow to God

My last example of a personal covenant with God is about Abraham Lincoln and is a story told by General Daniel Sickles, who fought for the Union army in the Battle of Gettysburg during the US Civil War. General Sickles noticed that immediately preceding the battle at Gettysburg, when nerves of all commanding officers should have been on edge, there was a certain calm and assurance about Abraham Lincoln. After the victory, when Lincoln was asked how that could be, he replied:

“Well, I will tell you how it was. In the pinch of your campaign up there, when everybody seemed panic-stricken and nobody could tell what was going to happen, oppressed by the gravity of our affairs, I went to my room one day and locked the door and got down on my knees before Almighty God and prayed to him mightily for victory at Gettysburg. I told him that this war was His, and our cause His cause, but we could not stand another Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville. Then and there I made a solemn vow to Almighty God that if He would stand by our boys at Gettysburg, I would stand by Him, and He did stand by our boys, and I will stand by Him. And after that, I don’t know how it was, and I cannot explain it, soon a sweet comfort crept into my soul. The feeling came that God had taken the whole business in his own hands, and that things would go right at Gettysburg, and that is why I had no fears about you.” (Hill, Abraham Lincoln—Man of God, 339–40.)

Timothy Ballard, in his book, The Lincoln Hypothesis, goes into much more detail about Lincoln’s conversion to God and the covenants he made personally and on behalf of our country as it’s leaders. I highly recommend the book, and you can check out my blog post on The Lincoln Hypothesis which has many of my favorite quotes from the book.

Consulting with My Friends and Family about Personal Covenants

As I was contemplated this topic, my father happened to be at my house and so I asked him what he knew about personal non-standardized covenants. His initial reaction was that he hadn’t put a lot of thought into the subject. But upon thinking about it a little more, a few minutes later he said when he was in high school, he wanted to make the baseball team very badly. He remembers praying and asking God if he would allow them to make the baseball team that he would dedicate his life to serving the Lord. My dad did make the baseball team and that experience seemed to increase his faith in God. He has dedicated his life to serving the Lord and is in fact, now serving a full-time mission with my mom. He has written about their senior mission on my Mormon Mission Prep website if you want to check it out.

I also thought I should reach out to a friend I worked with when I worked for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the church office building in downtown Salt Lake City. This person had once told me about a personal covenant he had made with God when his family was going through a very difficult time. I don’t think I should share the details of that private, personal story with you, but it was a faith promoting experience to call him and hear the account again. This friend reiterated to me his conviction the covenants we make in the standard gospel ordinances are patterns the Lord is trying to teach us. He said that he feels that the Lord wants all of us to learn to make and keep our own personal covenants with God and that the greatest blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ come to us by doing so. I wholeheartedly agree.

The Book of Abraham teaches that God sent all people to Earth “to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abraham 3:25). I have often thought that another related purpose of this life is for God to see if we would do two things that we promise we’re going to do…if we will do the things that we covenant to do, whether it be a standard covenant through the traditional gospel ordinances, or a personal covenant we make with God.

Spotlights in Primary and Teaching Children about Goals and Prayers

lds primary boys singingIn a recent Primary sharing time I attended, there were two “spotlights” presentations for two little girls. For those of you unfamiliar with LDS Primary and their spotlights, primary is the weekly Sunday school classes for Mormon children, and the spotlight is when one child is brought to the front and has information shared about them like their favorite foods, what they like to do, favorite books, what they want to be when they grow up, etc.

On this particular week, there were two spotlights. One of the young girls said she wanted to grow up to be a famous actress, and the other said she wanted to grow up to be a famous singer. My initial reaction to this was that if the spotlight program is helping to ingrain the desire to be famous into the youth of the church, then perhaps we should get rid of it. The overwhelming desire to be famous is rampant in our culture, and it causes so many ills in our society and in the Church (see James E. Faust’s talk, Who Do You Think You Are?)

Then I thought, perhaps this spotlight of the children’s future goals could be used as a teaching moment. Several months ago, I listened to a TED Talk by a woman named Laura Berman who said that, when she was a young adult, her biggest dream was to be a famous Broadway actress. She said she loved being on stage and love bringing entertainment people and most of all she loved it when her performances inspired people to make changes in their lives.

Laura’s career as an actress didn’t turn out very well and after 9 years of waiting tables to put money on the table while she tried to get her acting career going, she realized that her goal to be a famous actress wasn’t going to happen. She was devastated at first, but then she said she took a deeper introspection and found that her dream wasn’t what she thought it was. She realized that the dream to be a famous actress was just the shell, but on the inside, the yolk of that egg, was her true dream which was to make people happy by inspiring them to make changes in their lives.

Performing on stage was one way to accomplish her dream, but she realized there are infinite other ways to accomplish that dream. She ended up making her career as a motivational speaker and job coach. This career allowed her to work with people and inspire them to make changes in their lives that brought lasting joy and satisfaction. Her goal remained the same but the way she achieved her goal turned out to be very different than she had envisioned as a young adult. She said when she focused on what she wanted to be, an inspiration to people, rather than what she wanted to do, act on stage, then she was truly able to achieve her dreams and receive the joy and satisfaction that comes from that.

Laura Berman’s focus on being, rather than doing, reminded me of something Dallin H. Oaks once said:

“In contrast to the institutions of the world, which teach us to know something, the gospel of Jesus Christ challenges us to become something” (The Challenge to Become, October 2000).

I wonder if we as a church would do well to teach these girls, and all the primary children, that if they take a deeper look at their goals and dreams, they may find multiple ways to accomplish them. In fact, they are more likely to achieve their goals and dream and be happy if they focus on what they want to be rather than what they want to do.

Maybe that dream to be an actress is reflective of an underlying desire to motivating and inspiring to other people. Maybe that dream to be a singer is reflective of an underlying desire to bring comfort and peace to those who need it. When they realize what that core dream is, what they long to become, then they will have greater flexibility to do the things in life that will help them become who they want to be, whether it be through acting or singing or something entirely different.

While it is often difficult for us to discern between our inner core desires and the outer shell, I think God is able to distinguish our root desires from the outward desires. For example, if a person is praying that they’ll be a famous actress someday, I think God knows that the root desire might be something else, and God will answer the prayers for those root desires. God knows “the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12 and Alma 18:32). And Moroni chapter 7 teaches that it’s not the words we say in our prayers that matter so much as the “intent of heart” (Mor 7:9).

horse with bridleFor example, One time my friend Patti said she came across a neglected horse that had the bridal left on it for months. When she came upon the horse, she could see the flesh of the horses face growing around the bridle. She knew the horse was in pain and she prayed that the horse would let her take the bridle off. God knew that Patty’s root desire was to help the horse and that taking the bridle off would likely have killed the horse from bleeding and infection. The bridle needed to come off under the care and supervision of a doctors. The horse would not cooperate for Patti and so she alerted the authorities of the situation and they took it from there. Thankfully, God granted Patti’s inner desire and did not allow her to take the bridle off. God answered her inward prayer that the best thing would happen for the horse, not her outward prayer to immediately remove the bridle.

“For the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7)

Thankfully, God knows our hearts and our truest desires and He, in his love and mercy, will grant us our real desires, even when our outward desires sometimes get in the way.

When I shared all of the thoughts above with my wife, Heather, she said, “you know what your son put on his primary spotlight form about what he wants to be when he grows up? An NBA basketball player.” I sense a family home evening coming on this topic soon. We better help Max get to the root of that desire and figure out what he really wants to be so he has some alternative ways of reaching that goal, just in case the NBA never comes calling. 🙂