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Searching for Visalia

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
July 20, 2006

Searching for Visalia

Anytime I prepare to visit a new city I turn on my computer, open a Web browser, and head for Google. Entering the city name into the search field usually gives me a great idea of places to see, things to do, and what the local residents consider important. I used to sit in Borders to skim Rand maps and Frommer’s guides, but Google changed everything.

In the last three months, I have “Googled” cities in seven states. I often begin with a search for the best Mexican food, a requirement no matter where I travel. Then, I search for places to stay. Ideally, I like to stay within walking distance of whatever I’m doing. It’s amazing what Google has helped me discover, but Google can only find information already on the Web.

I began to wonder what would happen if I “Googled” Visalia in exactly the same way I do other cities. I went to Google, entered “Visalia” into the search field, and clicked “Google Search.” I anticipated the first Web page of links to feature information on the nearby national parks, a restaurant or two, and some entertainment options.

The first link offered by Google is always a map of the city, so I moved on to the next link. The link to the City of Visalia site seemed like something a tourist might follow, so off I went. I have to hope most tourists don’t do this; the headline was “Household Hazardous Waste Announces New Hours!” That makes me want to visit Visalia. Nothing about Sequoia or Kings Canyon, our beautiful downtown, or things to do in Visalia. Other cities combine blatant promotion with government services online. No one can claim Visalia is bragging online.

Studies have shown most people follow links from the first page of Google search results. Why would a tourist follow a link to the Visalia Police Department? I’m a proud graduate of Visalia schools, but I doubt a tourist wants to locate the Visalia Unified School District online. Nothing against the police or the Economic Development Corporation, but shouldn’t a business or two appear before these organizations?

Even the “Sponsored Links” on the right-hand side of Google was blank. Does no business in Visalia realize you can pay a minimal fee for a preferred listing on Google? I searched for Sedona, Arizona, and the first page included restaurants, Pink Jeep Tours, a dining guide, and a crystal shop. Sponsored links for galleries and events also appeared. Every link offered a reason to visit Sedona. We should learn from this example.

Before directing someone to the police blotter, what about our arts community? What about a dining guide, maintained by the Chamber of Commerce or the Downtown Visalians? I would love to see a page promoting Visalia’s role as Gateway to the Sequoias. I know the page probably exists, but I wasn’t patient enough to get beyond the third page of Google links.

Google works by calculating how many sites link to a specific Web page and how frequently Google users follow a particular link. One way to improve our city’s search results, then, is to encourage businesses and organization to create Web sites that interconnect. Our police department is listed prominently because there are links to the site from the official city page, the Tulare County page, the Downtown Visalians, and so forth. In fact, Google reports that18 unique sites link to the VPD Web site. That’s impressive — but shouldn’t the Downtown Visalians be more prominent? Or maybe the Visalia Chamber of Commerce?

Some people will argue that I should have been more specific in my search. I was searching for “Visalia” and not “Visalia dining” or something similarly specific. The problem is that studies show other travelers search just like I do. I start with the city name because I know Google is a good gauge of popularity. I get more specific only if I need to.

If you do search using “Visalia dining” not a single restaurant’s Web site is listed. National sites with “guides” are found by Google and a link the Downtown Visalian’s main page, but I was hoping to find the Web sites for specific Visalia restaurants. I’ll admit that I thought one or two would have sponsored links, but they didn’t.

What appears on the first page of Google search results gives a first impression of a city and its businesses. Finding out what the “locals” find important is revealing — most of the time. Yes, we have good police, great schools, and a new schedule for household waste recycling. But do these things sell us to potential visitors?

Years ago, the best anyone could do online was locate an out-of-date map and the weather forecast for a destination. Late in the twentieth century, I was searching for specific stores in the Bay Area. The streets and freeways of the Bay Area have never been easy to navigate, but driving from Casa de Fruta to San Francisco I encountered interchanges that had no business existing — they weren’t on my freshly printed map. The first two stores I located were closed. Using the Web was a disappointment.

Now, I never travel without first doing a Google search. I print a map and a list of places to see. Amazing how much things have changed in just a few short years.

It’s time for businesses in Visalia and other Valley cities to harness the power of Google.



Note: If you want to know how many sites link to a page, type "link:" followed by the Web site's address (URL, or Uniform Resource Locator).

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