In autumn 2011 I set up a community website in Leytonstone, East London (E11) in the London Borough of Waltham Forest and bordering Stratford.
Leytonstone was well placed to benefit from the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. Leytonstone was a prime regeneration area. A Business Improvement District (BID) had been set up in the Leytonstone town centre area, but their website mainly communicated with other BID members, not shoppers or the local community — and the majority of Leytonstone was not covered by the BID area.
Leytonstone was also not a formally recognised area: like many London ‘villages’ it had clear historical roots, people identified that they lived in Leytonstone, but it had always been part of other administrative areas. Since 1965 it has been in the London Borough of Waltham Forest, before that in the Borough of Leyton and Leytonstone in the County of Essex!
But just two stops on the Central Line to Stratford, London 2012 looming and the new, vast shopping centre at Westfield Stratford, Leytonstone had feet in two camps and felt lost.
If you searched online for ‘shops in Leytonstone’, ‘doctors in Leytonstone’ or any other grouping you would find nothing or the information would be lumped together with different areas — and not always the same areas as health services, business services and many other public services all have their own boundaries and don’t necessarily follow council boundaries, and certainly not postcodes.
I approached the BID and asked if they had plans to set up their own website — there was no point duplicating or competing — but they did not. There was a ‘Town talk’ website, but this used syndicated content and library photos — the Leytonstone pages would often show pictures that looked more like a scene from Suffolk: windmills, open fields and a golf course, but not Leytonstone’s own attraction, Hollow Ponds.
A number of local initiatives had started up — spurred on by the Olympics — so I rolled up my sleeves, got my camera out to build a library of local pictures, opened a WordPress account and created a local community website, which I eventually named Leytonstone Today, having found that somebody else had bought nearly all the simple domain names using ‘Leytonstone’.
As well as the website I created a number of social media sites. These provided both a way of publicising the site and its content and an important source of local information which I would then follow up and use to create regular news posts.
The site was pitched as being information, and supporting the local community, not campaigning. I was happy to point people to local campaigns, but I took a strict line that the site would not become partisan or controversial and I would leave bad news to the local media.
Number 2 on Google with zero budget
The site soon started climbing the Google search rankings and eventually reached number two on a Google search on ‘Leytonstone’. The number one spot was held by Wikipedia, beating a site as huge as Wikipedia was always going to be a tough ask.
However, on a ‘long tail’ search — where people type in not just ‘Leytonstone’ but eg ‘shops in Leytonstone’ it would frequently be number one position.
Was I spending thousands of pounds on advertising? No — I spent precisely £0 on advertising, in fact the only expense I had was about £12 a year on the domain name http://www.leytonstonetoday.net. I hosted the site on WordPress.com, which is totally free (though it did mean I couldn’t accept paid advertising, but paid advertising was something I had always considered to be a later stage, and I could upgrade to their other platform WordPress.org when I wanted to do that for just a few pounds a month). Read more about the differences between WordPress.com and WordPress.org.
I achieved these rankings purely through following Google’s guidelines on search engine optimisation:
- well written content
- regular updating of the site
- good use of images
- good links to and from other relevant sites
- good use of tags (also known as keywords) on news content
- using keywords in static page content, social media and press
- careful study of the site’s analytics to see which was the most popular content, what search terms people sued to get to the site and the time of week/day that different content appeared to be most popular (a sunny day had a lot of impact) and then adjusting content and news posts to tap into what the readers wanted
- tapping into local angles on national/London wide issues
It took a lot of time, a lot of experimentation, some mistakes. The site would not win awards for structure: it grew organically without much of a plan (which I wouldn’t advise!), some photos and graphics were created at break neck speed to get a news post published quickly, but it still worked and was well received by the local community and local community leaders.
And then I moved to Ipswich
Sadly, however, it became obvious that this site would have a limited future. A huge row broke out between the local E11 BID, traders in its area and the local councillors. I won’t re-run the stories here, search for ‘E11 BID’ on the Waltham Forest Guardian if you want to find out the latest.
I had no formal/contractural relationship with any of the parties involved, but to take the site to the next level I would have needed more formal co-operation with the BID and it was clear that the climate wasn’t right for that. Co-incidentally an opportunity came up to buy a house in Ipswich and I decided it was time to move.
With hardly any updating over the last year, Leytonstone Today continues to grow in readers — partly helped by Damon Albarn releasing a track about Leytonstone’s Hollow Ponds, which I did post about!
I had thought, a year on, that I’d shut the site down but some people have contacted me directly saying they still find it a useful resource and that it provides a unique historical snapshot of that wonderful summer of 2012 in East London. So, who knows.
Hyperlocals are growing
Since starting the site I’ve discovered that this kind of community site is recognised as a growing phenomenon. They are known as hyperlocal media. The government and Ofcom have done reports on them. There’s a national database listing them. Academics are studying them — Cardiff University even has a Centre for Community Journalism which runs courses specialising in this very medium (including a free online MOOC which I’ve done since moving to Ipswich).
So without realising I’d tapped into a new trend and in doing so I had a lot of fun, learnt a lot and helped the local community.
Community websites and use of social media can play an important role in regeneration and community cohesion and improving digital literacy.
If I can bring my experience to help your local community project, or small business please contact me.