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SEO Tip – Discovering backlinks

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how to find your backlinksWelcome back, hope you are finding this SEO tips series helpful.  A few weeks ago we discussed how to properly link to your site and the documents in it. Today, we’ll learn how to discover what other sites link to you, what pages they link to, and what words they use to do it.

You may recall from my SEO Ranking Factors article that the item believed to have the most positive affect on your search engine rankings was the anchor text used in links to your pages. If you are able to influence that text, you have a better chance of improving your rankings. But, before you can influence it, you have to know that the links exist.

There are many tools that let you search for sites that link to you. Some are free, others you have to pay for. As should be expected, the ones you pay for offer a few additional features, however for the purposes of this article, most of the free ones will work just fine.

Backlinkwatch.com is a free tool for identifying up to 1,000 of your incoming links. It will show you the URL of the site that links to you, the text (or image) that is used in the link, the PageRank (if available) of the page, how many outbound links the page has and if the link is “nofollow.”

Below is a sample of the results from Jay Thompson’s site, www.phoenixrealestateguy.com. (click it to open a bigger version in a new window and follow along)

Jay Thompson's Backlinks

Anchor Text

We can see that Jay’s choice in a domain name has paid off for him. Many people when linking to a Web site will just use the words from the domain as the anchor text. Because of this, Jay has BUNCHES of links with the words “phoenix real estate” in them. That is sure to help his rankings for that phrase. There are also a lot of links for his name “Jay Thompson”, which certainly will help his site rank in searches for his name, but that’s probably not very useful for acquiring new business. I consider the links using “Phoenix RE Guy” to be almost useless. I say almost because all links are good, and the use of “Phoenix” will help somewhat with other local-based searches. But, unless there are a lot of folks searching for homes using the phrase “phoenix re”, it’s pointless.

As with everything else they do, Google keeps the mechanism they use for scoring links a tightly guarded secret. However, we do know that they do NOT like link farms, and they assign lower values to links from blog rolls than from links within the main content sections. It stands to reason then, getting links from pages without a ton of other links is your best bet for a better value.

PageRank

Unfortunately most of the pages linking to Jay do not have a PageRank assigned by Google. This is not uncommon. Many sites do not get PR assigned to interior pages. However, if you can get links from ranked pages, those are much better – and naturally, the higher the rank the better.

Link Count

Looking at our sample of Jay’s links, we can see the number of outbound links from the pages, located in the column titled “OBL.” Some of them are quite large, well into the hundreds. As I said before, all links are good, but links from those pages are not nearly as good as the links from pages with fewer outbound links.

The last column shows us that only a few of the links are flagged as “no follow.” This is good. Google (and other engines) will still follow these links, but the “no follow” attribute tells them that the site is not verified, or trusted by the site providing the link. Because of this, they assign much lower values (if any) to the link.

Gotcha!

Well, maybe a gotcha. There’s a flaw in some of the tools. They may find links only for the exact page you provide them and possibly NOT the entire site. So you may have 500 links to the home page and another 50 to various pages inside your site, but unless you test them all you wouldn’t know about it. backlinkwatch.com does show you all links to your site – up to the 1,000 link limit anyway. If you use another tool, be sure to verify what it does or does not report.

Now what?

What do you do with all this information now that you have it? Spend some time going over your list of links. Analyze the anchor text. Does it use key words you want to target? If not, muster up some courage and ask the site owner to change it.

Bonus!

Ever wonder how your competitor does better in the rankings than you when your pages are so similar? The answer might be backlinks. Use one of these tools to analyze who links to them and what anchor text is used. Maybe you can also get the site to link to yours as well.

Get out your binoculars, put on your pith helmet and get busy exploring the web, discovering your own backlinks.

Jack Leblond is a SEO/SEM professional working for a large corporation full time in Austin, TX. He is not a Realtor, he is our in-house SEO expert. Jack is the Director of Internet Strategy and Operations for TG (www.tgslc.org). In addition to managing the team that develops and maintains the company's multiple Web sites, he focuses on Search Engine Optimization (SEO), e-marketing and Social Media. Jack's background ranges from Submarine Sonar Technician/Instructor for the United States Navy, technical writer, pioneer in internet/intranet creation for McGraw-Hill and Times Mirror Higher Education, former Adjunct Professor for two Universities teaching web-related courses, has served as a city council member and co-founded Net-Smart, a web design and hosting company, where he managed networks and oversaw the development of hundreds of Web sites. As a free-lance SEO consultant, Jack performs SEO Site Audits for small/medium businesses that want their web sites to perform better in the search engine listings.

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26 Comments

26 Comments

  1. Matt Stigliano

    October 24, 2009 at 8:32 am

    Jack – I am now officially a fan of Backlink Watch. I’m unfortunately finding that most people that linked me having used some form of RErockstar, which is great for it as a brand identity, but not in getting the word out. I know quite a few of the authors, so I may just have to make the bold step to ask for the favor.

  2. T.D. Wilson

    October 24, 2009 at 9:38 am

    Jack– thanks for another great article!

    Question: I am building a new site from the ground-up right now, and have the following domain names, among others: HomeSalesLexington and Home-Sales-Lexington .

    Is the latter better for backlinks (and SEO in general) since the keywords are separated, or IS THE FORMER JUST AS GOOD in this regard? I obviously much prefer the former since it is easy to say (I actually also have HomeSaleLexington, without the plural ‘s’ on Home– which is the easiest of all to say).

    Since I am just now building the site, I have the chance to set in place whatever is best.

    Suggestions? Thanks!

  3. Atlanta Real Estate

    October 24, 2009 at 10:03 am

    Jack- great post.

    I take a lot of heat for my “name spam” on various blogs, since I use “Atlanta Real Estate.” Some sites don’t mind and can tell from my posts that I’m not a spammer. Other sites won’t post my comments, so I just move on.

    A few sites have challenged me. They will see a quality post from me, so they know I’m not a spammer, but then they will ask why I spam my name.

    It’s really odd that I have to explain to folks blogging abut SEO why I don’t want 1,000 (or 5,000) backinks to my site with the anchor text being my name. This is like mistake #1 in link building: ineffective anchor text.

    All that aside, what is your absolute favorite backlink analysis tool, paid or unpaid?

    Thanks again for the great post,

    Rob in Atlanta

  4. Jay Thompson

    October 24, 2009 at 11:40 am

    Another great post Jack (and great choice of examples 😉 )

    Not that it matters, but do you have any idea why backlinkwatch orders the links the way they do? I’ve noticed almost identical ordering in other backlink monitoring sites and was always curious why they list them in this order.

    I’ve always had a hard time asking someone to change the link text. It’s just tough for me to say “Hey, thanks for the link, but would you mind changing it to this?” I suppose it can’t hurt to ask, but it’s still hard.

    To Rob’s comment — I think it’s important to note that the vast majority of backlinks to my site that Jack shows in that screen snip aren’t from commenting on blogs. (the difference is even more pronounced if you look at the entire list). They are mostly links other bloggers used within actual posts (or on a blogroll). I’ve got to believe that Google gives far more credence to a link an author puts into a post than a link in a comment entered by a site owner.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve found the best way to get bloggers to link to you is for you to link OUT to them. I’m not talking about reciprocal links here, but linking out to other bloggers will get you on their radar (and hopefully in their reader) and they may link back to you at some point.

    Also, it’s helpful in blog comments if you link to your blog and not a static web site. I click on a LOT of blog comment author links and if I get to a blog, I’ll often read/skim and add to my feed reader. A static web site gets very little notice (unless the design blows me away). I’ve discovered (and ultimately linked to) many blogs though comment author links.

    Personally, I do find the leaving of keywords in blog comments a little spammy. I also don’t think it’s effective for link building. I’ve read (but darned if I can find the links now) that G either has, or likely will be, devaluing blog comment links. And if you think about it, they probably should. It *should* mean more to Google if I chose to link to you from my blog than if you just write a comment on my blog… Which of those two links truly indicates a “vote” from me about your site?

  5. Jay Thompson

    October 24, 2009 at 11:47 am

    One other quick comment on the BackLinkWatch report. It seems to have issues reporting the PR of the linking site. For example, the first link to me on that report is from a PR7 site, but the PR shown in backlinkwatch is blank…. Of the four or five I just checked, all had PR where the report showed nothing, and I know several others also have a Google PR.

  6. Bob Wilson

    October 24, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    Jay is correct about the devaluing of comment spam. More importantly though, every site has a link profile. An over abundance of targeted anchor text isn’t considered natural by Google. Relying on this can backfire, even to the point of being penalized.

  7. Atlanta Real Estate

    October 24, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    Jay-Bob:

    (sounds like a country name, like Ricky Bobby) 🙂

    Shake-n-bake!

    I wouldn’t try to sound too authoritative on matters Google guys. Nobody knows the algorithm and it’s always changing.

    Given the choice between an abundance of anchor text with either my name, or a keyword, I’ll take the keyword and roll the dice.

    Who can tell me the exact % of links with keyword rich anchor text I should have?
    How about the % of links with exact repeat KWs as anchor text?
    How about the % of links with anchor text as my name?

    How about % of unique URLs?
    How about just how many links I need, period?
    How about: how many links from PR0 sites it would take to have the same effect as one PR5 link?
    How about what the effect of say 500 no-follow links from PR0 sites would be, or something way more convoluted, like in the real world?

    Unfortunately, nobody outside of Google can and nobody on the Google algorithm team will.

    Further thoughts?

    RM

  8. Bob

    October 24, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    I’m comfortable with the comments I made.

    I would suggest that you are asking the wrong questions.

    Good luck with your dice game.

  9. Jay Thompson

    October 24, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    Atlanta – I never clamied to be a Google expert, just offered my thoughts and opinions derived from my own observations of my blog and its SERPs, discussions with many bloggers, and SEO “experts”.

    Of course I can’t answer your specific questions. I doubt if any one person at Google can

  10. Jay Thompson

    October 24, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    Atlanta – I never clamied to be a Google expert, just offered my thoughts and opinions derived from my own observations of my blog and its SERPs, discussions with many bloggers, and SEO “experts”.

    Of course I can’t answer your specific questions. I doubt if any one person at Google can

    I do know one thing, the people at Google are smart, and they clearly know the difference between a link left by a commenter and a link incorporated by an author of a blog post.

    You mentioned “rollinng the dice”. That’s certainly your choice. I’d rather not gamble on my SERPs. My SEO strategy for my blog is over-simplified — I write for my readers, not the search engines. The SEs seem to figure it out pretty well and I get a decent amount of natural linkbacks. YMMV.

  11. Jay Thompson

    October 24, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    Sorry about the double comment. Typing on a phone is hard.

  12. Atlanta Real Estate

    October 24, 2009 at 7:09 pm

    Jay – that’s an excellent strategy.

    Mine is a little different. I blog to learn things, trade ideas, facts, etc.,

    My site is static and I’m leaning towards keeping it that way. The more blogs I read the less enthusiastic I am about having them crawling all over my web site.

    I realize all the SEO benefits of blogz, but what can I say. I may just build out hundreds of pages of static valuable information. What the hay.

    Also, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be argumentative here. I just personally think keyword anchors are more valuable than myname-anchors, no matter where they are: signatures, posts, titles, other sites, wherever.

    And, if someone is going to take the other side of that, or two people in this case, it would be cool if there were any actual facts behind it.

    And Bob, we’re all doing the best we can with the info we can gather. At some point you have to make some implementation decisions. Whether those decisions are going to be correct now, later or way later, is a roll of the dice.

    That’s the nature of The Google.

    Hell, some day The Google may be so inundated with all these trillion pages of Blogs that they actually start ignoring them, like they do with other worn out things, like meta keyword tags.

    My 6 month old site moved up another 100 spots this past week at Google for “Atlanta Real Estate” and I fully admit, it’s weak lame and lame and weak.

    RM

  13. Bob

    October 24, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    Rob, Im suggesting that you are playing devils advocate when its pretty well know that anchor text comment spam is viewed as spam.

    From Matt Cuuts’ blog:

    “If you comment, please use your personal name, not your business name. Business names can sound salesy or spammy, and I would like to try people leaving their actual name instead.”

    That was a not so subtle hint from an engineer who spends most of his time dealing with spam.

    There is a great deal of info out there on natural looking link profiles. A high percentage of the same anchor text only works to a point. Unfortunately I have first hand experience with sites where this was an issue and a confirmed reason for a penalty.

    I don’t believe in rolling the dice with a search engine that has such an impact on one’s livelihood. There are a handful of people who are very good at analyzing SE results, behavior and trends. IWhen they roll the dice, they are not betting their entire bankroll. They have a decent idea of the odds. They dont hit on 17 and they dont stand pat at 11.

    What you may be defining as anyone’s guess, I would suggest is more about calculating the known odds given the info available. Think of it as counting cards. You can never know for sure the next card to be dealt, but you can know enough to have a clearer understand of the potential results based on the odds..

  14. Atlanta Real Estate

    October 25, 2009 at 12:02 am

    Bob,

    I just deal in facts, figures, statistics and proven knowns. A debate on the Google algorithm most resembles a debate on politics or religion, most closely the latter.

    Discussing the algorithm is one thing, but this “I’m right and you’re wrong” is useless, for all except the most basic agreed to principles.

    I’m not literally “rolling the dice” with my site, or any of my strategies. Poor choice of words on my part, especially since you completely over read it.

    The Cutts quote does not prove your point. It simply asks that people use their own names so his blog does not become spammy or salesy. If you read any more into that into it, you will have again gone too far. It does not intimate in any way anything about how google values the links (or not).

    I admit to playing devils advocate (hey, it’s Halloween) because yes, I do indeed know that most people view KWs in the name field as spam. And, I bet 99% of the time, they are. Personally, I view those folks as smart, unless their post is spam.

    But, just like you defend your comments with basically no actual metrics or facts, I’ll defend mine with “why would someone want a quantity of links with their own name as the anchor..”

    Lastly, a non-applicable quote from Cutts and a “handful of they” doesn’t exactly prove anything about healthy link profiles, or any of the other items in my list of unanswerable questions.

    Problem is, in this debate, I will continually circle back to my original list of questions. These can not be answered, we all know this. So why don’t we stop acting like some people can and some people can’t.

    I mean if YOU can answer them, go for it. If not, let’s leave “them” out of it.

    🙂

    Take it easy on your reply!

    RM

  15. Nick @ Brick Marketing

    October 26, 2009 at 9:34 am

    Google webmasters will give you a great deal of good info along with getting on Google’s good side as well by allowing them into your website. If you build your business online naturally and proactively over time you will develop great links.

  16. Jack Leblond

    October 26, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    All – Don’t make me have to separate you guys. Play nice.

    Matt – Don’t expect miracles, but you might be surprised how effective a well worded request will work. Try not to come across too spammy though.

    T.D. – Are your reading over my shoulder? Next week we’ll be covering the proper way to separate words. Since you have both, use the one without the dashes.

    Rob – More important than what the site owner thinks is what your fellow site visitors think. If they think you left a good, thoughtful comment they may be tempted to visit your site. However, if they suspect that you are just a spammer, kiss that click good-bye.

    Jay – I can’t say for sure what this site does, but many of the free tools will grab the initial list from the Yahoo site explorer and then go and grab anchor text for the pages it lists.

    All – I discussed in a post on my own site (https://www.jackleblond.com/links-links-and-more-links-a-site-owners-best-friend/) that Google can generally recognize the different parts of a Web site and assigns different values to links depending on where they are located. Keeping this in mind, I thinks it’s safe to assume that Google expects to see a lot of links within blog comments with the same anchor text, possibly pointing to the same place and would not penalize anyone for it. Of course, if there were large numbers of them showing up in a short period of time, that would certainly throw up a flag.

    Regarding how and where to link to from your blog comments, I have found it useful to not just link to your blog, instead, link to a post that is somehow related to what you are commenting on. I also prefer to see real names, not business names or key words.

  17. Rob McCance

    October 26, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    Jack:

    Thanks for checking back in.

    Besides the free Backlinkwatch.com, what is your favorite backlink checking tool, paid or unpaid?

    I think YHOO Site Explorer ranks pretty high in the raw identification of them, but there they are in seemingly no order, or rank, and there’s no anchor text or PR shown.

    Thanks!

  18. Rob McCance

    October 31, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    Guys:

    Here’s an excellent post regarding some of the Google-isms:

    https://www.joe-whyte.com/2007/02/03/google-filters-how-to-get-around-them-and-exploit-their-loop-holes/

    In particular, here’s some interesting data on repetitive anchor text, or Google Bombing, as they call it:

    Google Bombing: Google Bombing is a filter applied to sites who gain a large number of inbound links with the same anchor text. This raises a red flag to Google as it is extremely unnatural for an inbound linking structure to all have the exact same anchor text.

    How to work around this: If your site actually has this filter applied then most likely you have been banned from the search engines and a re-inclusion request is probably your best bet. If the filter is not applied but through your monitoring you see this potential then you might want to go back and request people change your anchor text, buy some links with varying anchor text etc.

  19. Doug Francis

    November 1, 2009 at 5:41 pm

    I have been following this series Jack because it has me shaking my head each time. Jay is another guy who always makes me think… so seeing behind his curtain is interesting.

    Keep up the great work, and I look forward to really contributing to the discussion one day.

  20. Claudia Gonella

    November 2, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    Thanks for pointing out backlink checker – a very useful resource. (I did notice that Agent Genius comments seemed to be no followed even if made when logged in … not sure if that is a glitch with the tool though)

  21. Jack Leblond

    November 2, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    @Claudia the tool is somewhat inconsistent with how it reports follow/no-follow. It is great at showing anchor text though.

  22. Jay Thompson

    November 3, 2009 at 1:36 am

    Claudia –

    According to the page source code, your link here is no-followed. But hopefully people are leaving comments to share, and learn and engage, not to get a back link. (and I don’t want to hijack Jack’s thread with a blog commenting for back links debate. Suffice it to say commenting for back links is the last reason people should be commenting on any blog, IMO.)

  23. Claudia Gonella

    November 3, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Jay/jack – Yes I also looked at the source code and it does seem as if links in this comment stream are no-followed. Completely agree that getting a backlink should not be the reason to leave comments. (But I do think I read that AG offers this as a benefit from joining / participating in its network? This may have changed though).

  24. Benn Rosales

    November 3, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Claudia, you are dofollow, a 3rd party app (NoDoFollow) says you’re dofollow, but the source does say nofollow, this is very interesting- we’ll add it to the punch card and see what’s really happening- something is conflicting.

  25. Nashville Grant

    March 10, 2010 at 1:07 am

    You should check out SEO MOZ’s open site explorer, it will blow your mind.

  26. Daniel

    March 20, 2010 at 12:08 am

    Thanks for pointing out backlinkwatch.com . It works good. But………. I will be checking out SEO MOZ site explorer next.

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Business Finance

Will cash still be king after COVID-19?

(EDITORIAL) Physical cash has been a preferred mode of payment for many, but will COVID-19 push us to a cashless future at an even faster rate?

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No more Cash

Say goodbye to the almighty dollar, at least the paper version. Cashless is where it’s at, and COVID-19 is at least partially to thank–or blame, depending on your perspective.

Let’s face it, we were already headed that direction. Apps like Venmo, PayPal, and Apple Pay making cashless transactions painless enough that even stubborn luddites were beginning to migrate to these convenient payment methods. Then COVID-19 hit the world and suddenly, handling cash is a potential danger.

In 2020, the era of COVID-19, the thought of all the possible contaminants, traveling around on an old dollar bill makes most of us cringe. Keep your nasty sock money, boob money, and even your pocket money to yourself, sir or madam, because I’ll have none of it! Nobody knows or wants to know where your money has been. We like the idea of taking your money, sure, but not the idea of actually touching it…ewww, David. Just ewww.

There is no hard evidence that cash can transmit COVID-19 from one person to the other, but perception is a powerful agent for changing our behavior. It seems plausible, considering the alarming rate this awful disease is moving through the world. Nobody has proven it can’t move with money.

There was a time when cash was King. Everyone took cash; everyone preferred it. Of course, credit cards have been around forever, but they’ve always been just as problematic as they are convenient. Like GrubHub and similar third party food delivery apps, banks end up charging both the business and the consumer with credit cards. It’s a trap. Cash cut out the (greedy) middle man.

Plus, paying with a credit card could be a pain. Try paying a taxi driver with a credit card prior to, oh, about 2014 when Uber hit the scene big time. Most drivers refused to take cash, because credit cards take a percentage off the top. Enter rideshare companies like Uber. Then in walks Square. Next PayPal, Venmo, and Apple Pay enter the scene. Suddenly, cabbies would like you to know they now take alternate forms of payment, and with a smile.

It’s good in a way, but it may end up hurting small businesses even more in the long run. The harsh reality of this current moment is that you shouldn’t be handling cash. No less an authority than the CDC recommends contactless forms of payment whenever possible. However, those cabbies weren’t wrong.

The banking industry has been pushing for a reduced reliance on cash since the 1950s, when they came up with the idea of credit cards. It was a stroke of evil genius to come up with more ways to expedite our lifelong journey into crushing debt.

The financial titans are very, very good at what they do, at the expense of all the rest of us. The New York Times reported on the trend, noting:

“In Britain alone, retailers paid 1.3 billion pounds (about $1.7 billion) in third-party fees in 2018, up £70 million from the year before, according to the British Retail Consortium.

Payment and processing companies such as PayPal (whose stock is up about 55 percent this year) and Adyen, based in the Netherlands (up 72 percent), also stand to gain.”

All kinds of related banking-related industries stand to benefit as well. Maybe we’ll go back to spending physical cash one day, but I don’t think there’s any hurry. Fewer old grandpas are hiding their cash in their proverbial mattresses, and the younger, most tech-savvy generation seems perfectly content to use their smart phones for everything.

We get it. Convenience plus cleanliness is a sweet combo. I only wish it weren’t such a racket.

If this trend towards a cashless future continues, there may be a possibility that travelers in the future may not experience what it’s like to fumble with foreign currency, to smile and shrug and hand over a handful of bills because they have no idea how many baht, pesos, or rand those snacks are. They may not experience the realization that other countries’ bills come in different shapes and sizes, and they may not come home with the most affordable souvenirs (coins and bills).

We shall see what the future holds. Odds are, it may not be cash money, at least in the U.S. I hope the cashless movement makes room for everyone to participate without being penalized. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, people. We need to find more ways to ease the path for people, not callously profit off of them.

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Tech News

Google Maps will soon display traffic lights

(TECH NEWS) The addition of traffic light positions to Google Maps promises to boost navigation accuracy. Now you won’t run a light while looking at navigation.

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google maps traffic lights

At over 150 million monthly users, Google Maps’ value is not to be understated. With a new feature that shows traffic light positions rolling out to select devices and locations soon, one can expect that trend to continue.

A common issue with navigation via an app–especially when navigating solo–is a lack of precision that can lead to confusion, missed exits, potentially dangerous driving, and, worst of all, spilled coffee. By adding the location of traffic lights, Google Maps will improve both landmark recognition and automated navigation by providing drivers with more accessible information.

It’s worth noting a couple of arguing points, the first of which is the assertion that Google is starting from scratch on this feature. They aren’t. In fact, Japan-based Google Maps users have had access to traffic light positioning for years; Google is simply expanding the feature to include a larger number of cities and population density.

In a similar vein, Google also isn’t the first company to implement an ease-of-access feature such as this. Apple Maps has incorporated traffic light recognition since the release of iOS 13, and while its use is hit-or-miss (my iPhone 11 fails to pick up most traffic lights in my admittedly rural town of residence), the option to have Siri direct users to the nearest traffic light rather than saying “in 213.7 feet, turn left” is helpful.

That said, Apple Maps is a service which sees a little over 20 million monthly users–a far cry from Google Maps’ monthly base. For Google, accuracy and speed of updates will be paramount for a successful, routinely helpful launch.

At the time of this writing, Google plans to release the traffic light feature in New York, San Francisco, and a few other United States cities. The feature will be available on Android devices–sorry for now, Apple users–and will ideally expand to encompass most of the country if the initial release is successful.

It will be interesting to see how comprehensive Google’s coverage is and how quick the company is to adjust positioning of lights as cities do what cities do best. For now, if you have an Android device, keep an eye on your Maps app–good things are coming your way.

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Business News

Plastic bags are making a comeback, thanks to COVID-19

(BUSINESS NEWS) Plastic bags are back, whether you like it or not – at least for now.

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Plastic bags

Single use plastic bags are rising like a phoenix from the ashes of illegality all over the country, from California to New York. Reusable bags are falling out of favor in an effort to curtail the spread of COVID-19. It’s a logical step: the less something is handled, generally, the safer it is going to be. And porous paper bags are thought to have a higher potential to spread the virus through contact.

It’s worth mentioning that single use plastic bags are considerably more
environmentally efficient to manufacture compared to paper, cloth, and reusable plastic bags. Per unit, they require very little material to make and are easily mass produced. It also goes without saying that they have a very short lifespan, after which they end up sitting in landfills, littering streets, or drifting through oceans.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s hard to deny that single use plastics have the potential to be as dangerous to humans as COVID-19. Coronavirus is a very immediate existential threat to us in the United States, but the scale of the global crises that stem from the irresponsible consumption of cheap disposable goods, also cannot be overstated. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t going anywhere. (And did you know that it’s just one of many huge garbage patches around the world?)

So… what exactly are we going to do about the comeback of plastic bags? Because to be honest, I used to work in grocery retail, and it is difficult and often unrewarding. So, I wouldn’t exactly love handling potentially contaminated tote bags all day in the midst of a pandemic if I were still a supermarket employee. You couldn’t pay me enough to feel comfortable with that – forget minimum wage!

I used to have a plastic bag stuffed full of other plastic bags sitting in my kitchen, like American nesting dolls, before disposable plastics fell from grace. (I’m sure some of y’all know exactly what I’m talking about.) This bag of bags was never a point of pride. It got really annoying because it just kept growing. There are only so many practical home uses for the standard throw-away plastic shopping bag. Very small trash can liners; holding snarls of unused cables, another thing I accumulate for no reason; extremely low-budget packing material; one could get crafty and somehow weave them into a horrible sweater, I guess.

I don’t miss my bag of bags. I don’t want to have to deal with another. Hey, Silicon Valley? Got any disruptive ideas for this one?

Even if we concede that disposable plastics are a necessary evil in the fight against COVID-19, the fact remains that they stick around long after you’re done with them. That’s true whether you throw them out or not.

I’m not trying to direct blame anywhere. Of course businesses should do their best to keep their customers and staff safe, and if that means using plastic bags, so be it. Without clear guidance from our federal government, every part of society has been fumbling and figuring out how to keep one another healthy with the tools they’ve got at hand. (…Well, almost every part.)

The changes to the state bag bans have been cautious and temporary so far, which is a small relief. But nobody really knows how much longer the pandemic will rage on and necessitate the relaxations.

I won’t pretend that I have a sure solution. All I can really ask is that we all be extra mindful of our usage of these disposable plastic products. Let’s think creatively about what we might otherwise throw away. We must not trade one apocalypse for another.

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