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Nov 27 / bschwartz

Thankful Thursdays: Habitat for Humanity

Habitat-for-HumanityHabitat for Humanity believes that every man, woman and child should have a decent, safe and affordable place to live. Habitat builds and repairs houses all over the world using volunteer labor and donations. Partner families then purchase these homes through no-profit, no-interest mortgage loans or innovative financing methods.  Read more about their vision and mission principles (http://www.habitat.org/how/mission_statement.aspx).

The world is currently experiencing a global housing crisis. There are nearly 2 billion people around the world who live in slum housing and more than 100 million who are homeless. Adequate housing is vitally important to the health of the world’s economies, communities and populations. If we are to succeed in the fight against poverty, we must support the expansion of housing both as policy and as practice. As a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian ministry that builds with people in need regardless of race or religion, Habitat for Humanity helps by building or renovating simple, decent houses in partnership with those in need.

Furthermore, families left homeless by natural disasters, war and civil unrest often face dire housing situations as they struggle to rebuild their lives. Habitat for Humanity provides shelter and housing assistance to help these families recover. Because wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in a world where everyone has a decent place to live.

But it’s true when they say Habitat for Humanity builds more than homes. In the Cambodian village of Kor Tro Keat, a simple Habitat water project has changed the lives of the entire community.

Chen Phon, 47, lost his right leg decades ago in a landmine blast that also claimed much of his vision. For years, he had to walk great distances to get water to sustain his wife and child and their meager vegetable garden. In 2007, Habitat for Humanity Cambodia stepped in and provided cement, construction materials and building instructions for a well to serve Phon and all his neighbors.

Now, Phon’s garden provides plenty of food for his family, with enough left over to sell in the village market. The Phons also raise animals and chickens, allowing them to build a more secure future. Meanwhile, the health of the entire family has improved.

“The life of my family has changed so much,” Phon says. The well “has given me hope from my hopelessness.”

One small investment in a community pays off in healthier, happier families who can improve their livelihood options and provide a better future for their children.

Read more stories about “Why we build” and experience the impact of Habitat’s work here:  http://www.habitat.org/lc/stories_multimedia/why_we_build/SM_Why_We_Build_default.aspx

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Habitat for Humanity has more than 1,500 local affiliates in the United States and more than 70 national organizations around the world. In total, the organization has helped to build or repair over 800,000 houses and serve more than 4 million people worldwide. Beyond that, Habitat develops and supports special programs to engage volunteers from all walks of life in Habitat’s mission and work.

Find your local Habitat for Humanity Affiliate here: http://www.habitat.org/how/affiliates.aspx

More information on volunteer programs: http://www.habitat.org/getinv/volunteer_programs.aspx

Getting Involved: http://www.habitat.org/getinv

Your donation helps to build affordable housing for families in need, providing them with shelter and the hope of a better life. VHT Studios has a pledged to donate to Habitat for Humanity because shelter from rain, wind and sun is a basic human need.

Donate Today: http://www.habitat.org/support

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Nov 21 / bschwartz

Thankful Thursdays: Illinois Tornado Relief

Washington, Ill., sits in ruins as the sun rises Monday, a day after a severe tornado tore through the community.

Washington, Ill., sits in ruins as the sun rises Monday, a day after a severe tornado tore through the community.

Lots of people in and around Washington, Ill., are referring to the areas devastated by Sunday’s tornado as looking like a war zone.

Six people were killed and dozens other injured when tornados swept through Illinois on Sunday, November 17. Officials report more than 1,000 homes sustained damage and tens of thousands more are still without power. More than 100 people stayed in 25 Red Cross shelters Monday night in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio.

After a disaster, everyone wants to help. With nowhere left to store the cases of water and rolls of paper towels and bags of children’s clothing that keep coming in, churches and other shelters in the Washington area are turning away donations.

“We’re Midwesterners,” says Phil Bolam, accepting a couple of slices of pizza offered by a teacher from the neighboring middle school who walks by, pushing a waiter’s cart. “We band together in tragedy, and people are wonderful.”

His home of 20 years on Westminster Drive is gone, nothing but broken wood left in its place. He and his wife, Ella, were trying to salvage what they could before the rain started up on Wednesday afternoon. He’s staying in a hotel and has no storage.

“We’re going to rebuild, right here,” Phil Bolam says. “We hope some of our neighbors do, too.”

Read more: Heartwarming Reunion: Illinois Tornado Survivor Finds His Missing Dog Buried Alive Under Rubble (UPDATED)

Maggie is being treated for a dislocated hip, but is expected to be okay. Byler Dann, 37, has had the 11-year-old dog since she was 4 months old.

Maggie is being treated for a dislocated hip, but is expected to be okay. Byler Dann, 37, has had the 11-year-old dog since she was 4 months old.

Here’s how you can help:

LOCATING LOST THINGS WITH SOCIAL MEDIA:

Found items from the Washington Illinois and Diamond Illinois Tornadoes

Found something in your yard that belongs to someone in Washington or Diamond, Illinois? Post it to this Facebook page so that the owner can find it.

There’s also a Facebook page for missing pets.

DONATE:

American Red Cross:

The American Red Cross is responding across five states to help people affected by Sunday’s devastating tornado outbreak and severe weather in the Midwest, providing food, shelter and comfort to families and individuals in need.

If you’d like to make a donation, please do so through the American Red Cross website.

Salvation Army:

Before the storm was even at full strength, the Salvation Army had mobilized teams to areas that looked like they would need emergency food and shelter. These teams are dispersed across the region to offer nourishment, shelter and guidance to the needy. The Salvation Army has established a way to give immediately; you can contribute by texting STORM to 80888 to make a $10 donation.

You can also send a check to The Salvation Army, 401 NE Adams, Peoria, Illinois 61603. Specify that you’re donation is for “November Tornado Relief.”

Operation Blessing:

The humanitarian organization vows to help even if it doesn’t deploy a full disaster response team. Jody Herrington-Gettys, director of domestic disaster relief for Operation Blessing, has pledged support to the region, saying it will partner with local churches and other groups and assist in aid efforts through grants and donations.

Team Rubicon:

Team Rubicon is a group of veterans who come together after disasters to provide immediate relief and aid to rescue and recovery workers. It has already sent people to help clear debris in Washington, where many of the injuries occurred.

Washington & Central Illinois Tornado Relief & Recovery:

This Facebook page has frequent updates on what you can give and how you can get it to the victims of the tornadoes in central Illinois.

Here is a list of locations that are excepting donations of supplies.

MORE INFORMATION:

PEORIA/WASHINGTON ILLINOIS LOST AND FOUND PETS-NDARRT:

A community Facebook page for reporting lost and found pets from the Washington, IL, and surrounding area.

Click here to visit the page.

WASHINGTON & CENTRAL ILLINOIS TORNADO RELIEF & RECOVERY:

Clearinghouse of Info, Relief & Recovery Resources for the 11/13 Tornadoes in IL.

Click here to visit the page.

LOST DOGS ILLINOIS

A network of volunteers & dog advocates helping reunite “lost” dogs with their families & “found” dogs with their owners.

Click here to visit the page.

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Photo credits: Zbigniew Bzdak/MCT/Landov/Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Nov 14 / bschwartz

Thankful Thursdays: Homes For Our Troops

logoHFOT_H4H_snowingHomes for our Troops is a national non-profit organization founded in 2004 which is strongly committed to helping those who have selflessly given to our country and have returned home with serious injuries since September 11, 2001. This top rated non-profit assists severely injured Veterans and their families by raising money, building materials and professional labor, and by coordinating the process of building a home that provides maximum freedom of movement and the ability to live more independently. The homes provided by Homes for Our Troops are given at NO COST to the Veterans the organization serves.

Homes for Our Troops exists to restore the gift of freedom and independence to our nation’s most severely injured veterans through the gift of a specially adapted home. Homes for our Heroes has completed hundreds of new homes throughout the country, and currently has 31 ongoing new constructions.  Please view the interactive map for more information on their projects.

Your donation to Homes for our Troops helps build homes for service veterans like Army Staff Sergeant Luke Murphy.

photo1006Army Staff Sergeant Luke Murphy the Squad Leader of an 11 man Reconnaissance Team with the 187th Infantry Regiment, a component of the 101st Airborne Division was on his second deployment when he lost his right leg above the knee and severely injured his left leg in an Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP) blast in Sadr City, Iraq on April 25, 2006.

Transported by truck, and thanks to the lifesaving measures by his men, 18 minutes after the blast SSG Murphy was in a field hospital being prepared for medevac to the Baghdad ER where he received several units of blood. Stabilized for transport to Landstuhl, Germany, SSG Murphy arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center within days of his injuries and remained there for a year enduring nearly thirty surgeries. SSG Murphy is grateful for the support he has received from the Tallahassee community.

When asked what he would like to say to those who will make this specially adapted home possible SSG Murphy stated, Thank you for helping to make my life easier. The daily obstacles I face will be greatly reduced with a home built by Homes for Our Troops. Your actions will help reduce the stress and pain I deal with which in turn will make me very happy and comfortable…I will be empowered by the independence I will have and will be pleased to be a functional citizen again.

Read more about SSG Murphy’s story

VHT Studios has made a donation to help give severely injured veterans homes, and here is how you can too:
You may make a donation using your credit card online here , by calling the Homes for our Hereos office from 9 am to 5pm EST at 866-7-TROOPS or print out the form and mail in a donation to the office at:
 Homes for Our Troops
 6 Main St.
 Taunton, MA 02780

Learn more about Homes for our Troops mission of ‘building homes, rebuilding lives’ and where your donation goes here: http://www.hfotusa.org/faq

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Nov 7 / bschwartz

Thankful Thursdays: PAWS Chicago

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November is the perfect month to be thankful for what we have, but it is also the perfect month to give back and help others.  This November, VHT Studios will be highlighting as well as giving back to four charities that support the mission of finding homes for those in need. First up in our Thankful Thursday series, PAWS Chicago!

PAWS Chicago is the city’s largest No Kill humane organization and their mission is based on working to build a No Kill Chicago — a city where pets are no longer destroyed just because they are homeless. Since their founding in 1997, homeless dogs and cats killed annually in the City of Chicago has dropped more than 70 percent and Paws has united more than 25,000 cats and dogs with new forever families.

The PAWS Adoption Center is located at 1997 N. Clybourn Ave Chicago, IL 60614, but there are always life-saving adoption and fundraising events going on throughout the city and suburbs. Check out the list of events here: http://www.pawschicago.org/about-paws-chicago/events/.

One recent event was an emergency response trip PAWS volunteers took to Moore, Oklahoma after the devastating tornado in May 2013. On this trip PAWS Chicago saved the lives of 79 cats and dogs, with 10 volunteers driving five vans to transport the animals back to Chicago. Read more about the trip and how the rescued animals are loving life in their new forever homes in Chicago! http://www.pawschicago.org/news-and-features/help-paws-chicagos-emergency-response-to-oklahoma/

Visit PAWS website to see how PAWS Chicago’s programs are working to create a no kill Chicago! http://www.pawschicago.org/ . Or better yet, donate to PAWS Chicago or purchase items off their Amazon wish list and become a voice for homeless pets. http://www.pawschicago.org/support-paws-chicago/donate/ and http://www.pawschicago.org/support-paws-chicago/wish-list/

PAWS in the news: http://www.chicagonow.com/candid-candace/2013/11/smashing-pumpkins-billy-corgan-and-chef-curtis-duffys-creative-gift-for-paws-chicago-fur-ball-video/

Pippen Fasseas Adoption Center
1997 N. Clybourn Ave.
Chicago, IL 60614 – Map it
773-935-7297 (PAWS)

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Oct 8 / bschwartz

Google’s Hummingbird update explained – what should it mean for your SEO?

birdLast week Google announced its new Hummingbird algo update, putting lots of SEOs into doubts and concerns – what should this algo change mean to you and your website? To make sure you don’t get down into panic and plan your SEO strategy wisely, we’ve put up this short guide to explain what Hummingbird update is, how it affects your rankings and how to adapt your SEO strategy to benefit from the changes.

So, what do we know about Hummingbird?

Though announced on September 26 only, Hummingbird was in fact released a month before that and is said to affect 90% of search queries.

Unlike Penguin and Panda, Hummingbird is not a penalty-based update (aimed at cleaning the SERPs from low-quality content), but a change in the way Google reacts to different types of queries, which lets the search engine now get the actual meaning behind a query, rather than the separate terms in it.

Besides, the algorithm is called to better deal with conversational queries, considering the growing number of mobile search users and voice searchers.

So Hummingbird is all about Google being able to catch users’ actual search intent and find the content that matches this intent the best.

But what does this mean for Internet marketers and SEO?

Read more on Link-Assistant.com

 

Oct 8 / bschwartz

Why Google Authorship Is More Important Than Your Website

t_471_0Now, more than ever, it is important to note that Google tracks your authority within your industry and will follow the trail of your footprints as you move around from place to place on the web. Then it will aggregate everything you do and put it all together. Your unique content  will ultimately get ranked by the ‘authority’ that you, the author, has, and by the value that others deem relevant in your content. This means that an author who has been well ranked by Google will help to raise the profile of any website that they are associated with.

In fact, Authorship is more important than your website because Google is now grading and ranking authors more consistently than they arewebsites. However, the one thing that has not changed is the importance of quality content; this is how you will build your authority. This means that the old methods of link building will not be as important as the credibility of the content that you author.

The best way to showcase your authority within a specific niche or industry is by associating your personal or business profile and website to every relevant piece of content you’ve ever written. Google Authorship is an easy way to connect your content through your Google+ profile and benefit from that association. If your name is listed as the author of the content, you can associate it. You may also hear people calling Google Authorship markup as the ‘rel=author’ tag or “rel=publisher’ tag.

Rel=Author ties your personal Google+ profile to individual pieces of content found online. By claiming your content with Rel=Author, you will see your head shot show up in the search engine results pages when your content shows up. Here’s an example:

relauthorRel=Publisher ties your business Google+ page to your website. By claiming your website content with Rel=Publisher, you will see your Google+ page summary in the search engine results pages when someone searches for your brand name. Here’s an example:

relpublisher

Using authorship helps searchers discover great information by highlighting content from authors who they might find interesting. If you’re an author, signing up for authorship will help users recognize content that you’ve written. Additionally, searchers can click the byline to see more articles you’ve authored or to follow you on Google+.

While there hasn’t been a comprehensive study on how much additional traffic a person can receive from a photo appearing in search, but by building up your authorship, blog posts and articles that you have written will get displayed in the search engine results pages along with your author bio photo, which can increase the click through rate of your listing by as much as 150%!

Google algorithms are constantly trying to discover the best content on the web created by true authorities on various subject matters. Brands and marketers can no longer fake their way into better search engine rankings. They have to deliver compelling content in many different forms, to the right customers, at the right stage of the buying cycle. And Google Authorship is one way to do just that.

Straight from Google’s mouth, here is how to add a Google Author Tag and Google Publisher Tag to your website, as well as answers to any other important Authorship questions you may have.

 

Sep 24 / bschwartz

Grow Your Business Through Google Maps

VHT Studios’ founder and CEO, Brian Balduf, has been quite busy recently being interviewed, filmed, and providing information on the company’s newest service, Google Business Photos!

The new service is designed to help all types of retailers grow their customer base by letting Google’s millions of users ‘See Inside’ and get a preview. High-quality virtual tours allow consumers to compare different businesses on Google so they can zero in on the ones offering the types of experiences and merchandise that suit their needs.

Find out how else you can help your business ’Be Seen’ by watching Balduf”s recent interview with NBC 5 Chicago.

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For more information about Google Business Photos, listen to Balduf’s radio interview on WBEZ’s Afternoon Shift and visit VHT Studios’ See Inside Photography website!

Sep 3 / bschwartz

Google enlists VHT to enhance StreetView mapping

VHT Studios, the nationwide leader in real estate photography and digital marketing, recently announced today the launch of “See Inside Photography for Google.” The new service combines VHT Studios’ stunning photography and Google’s Street View virtual tour technology. It offers retail shops, restaurants, doctors’ offices, salons, gyms, and other small businesses throughout the Chicago area a powerful way to stand out on Google search results and attract more customers. And those in the business technology world are taking notice.

John Pletz of CRAIN’s Chicago said of VHT Studios’ Google Business Photos Launch:

AR-130839979.jpg&maxw=368&q=100&cb=20130924020431VHT Inc., which has been helping real estate agents sell homes online with better pictures, has been enlisted by Google Inc. to shoot spiffier images of commercial properties for its maps service.

The Rosemont-based company, which now calls itself VHT Studios, has built up an army of more than 150 professional photographers nationwide who work on contract.

Google is partnering with VHT as well as other photographers and agencies nationwide to get more pictures from inside local businesses as part of its StreetView product, which allows Google Maps users to see buildings as well as find their locations.

The effort, branded Google Business Photos, is part of the search-engine giant’s broader business of local search, in which location becomes a bigger part of electronic commerce. When someone searches for a local restaurant, for example, both a map and photos will show up.

VHT has launched the service, which it calls See Inside Photography, in Chicago but will expand to 20 cities over the next 12 months, CEO Brian Balduf says. The cost to provide pictures of products and the interior of a business, including a virtual walk-through, is $595.

“We shoot thousands of properties across the country every month,” Mr. Balduf says. “It’s what we already do, just a different market.”

He says it was always part of the plan for VHT to move into other markets. “We started with real estate because there are 5 to 10 million homes sold a year. Everything else is smaller.”

The company already shoots hotels for Orbitz Worldwide Inc., vacation rentals for HomeAway.com and funeral homes for Service Corp. International.

Mr. Balduf, who recently returned to the CEO role after Alex Zoghlin left to become head of global technology at Hyatt Hotels Corp., says the Google partnership could help VHT double its business in the next 12 to 24 months.

He declines to disclose VHT’s revenue, but its sales are thought to be more than $10 million. The company launched 15 years ago and raised about $6.5 million in venture capital, though it’s been self-funded for the past six years.

VHT has about 50 employees, but Mr. Balduf says it will be staffing up for the new business, which will be labor-intensive because it involves serving large numbers of small companies.

“This will double the photography network, so we’re aggressively recruiting,” he says. “And we’re expanding the marketing side.” He plans to recruit about 100 college students and recent graduates on contract for the product.

See the Crain’s article here.

To learn more about how Google Business Photos can help your business attract attention on the web, visit VHT Studios’ See Inside Photography website or read our press release.

Jul 30 / Nick Teel

Linksanity Continues: Google’s Disavow Tool

Disavow links tool

Link building is all the craze this past couple of years.  This year has proven no exception after Google launched the mysterious Disavow Tool.

What it is and what it does

Google’s Disavow tool was rolled out last October. Its purpose was simple: If you have done all that you can to clean up your link profile and there are still some unsavory websites in your link profile, linking to your site, Google’s Disavow Tool can help you clean them up. The tool lets you submit a list of links or entire domains for Google’s consideration in discrediting them from your link profile. Disavow will not remove the links, but it lets Google know you’d like the search engine algorithms to ignore them when it comes to your search ranking calculations.

Basically, you can ask Google to ignore links you do not control if you believe they could be harming your website’s rankings. But not so basically, you should know that this tool is not a cure all and you should proceed with caution if you plan to use it as a means of cleaning up your link profile.

Why Google Disavow

In the aftermath of Google’s Penguin 2.0 update, released May 22nd 2013, and websites being unable to discredit spam links, more attention is being paid to the link profiles of websites and blogs.

In the past, many SEO’s would boost the rankings of websites by building links on irrelevant sites, particularly by submitting their domain to web/link directories. When Google cracked down on irrelevant means of building your SEO, many sites that relied on these directories for rankings were hit hard and their rankings plummeted, negatively impacting the company’s search engine ranking position (SERP). Now many webmasters are trying to clean up the mess.

This is where the Google Disavow tool comes in. Google’s link disavow tool allows publishers to tell Google that they don’t want certain links from external sites to be considered as part of Google’s algorithms that calculate link trust, authority, and equity. Some sites want to do this because they’ve purchased links, a violation of Google’s policies, and may suffer a penalty if they can’t get the links removed. Other sites may want to remove links gained from participating in bad link networks or for other reasons.

As the Disavow Tool continues to grow in popularity with webmasters who were hit with Penguin 2.0 penalties, the real estate industry should take note, as it was one of the industries hit the hardest by Penguin 2.0.  Penguin 1.0 focused solely on the link equity and external backlinks pointing to a website’s homepage. Penguin 2.0 looks at all sub-pages coming from a root domain or homepage and could potentially penalize a site accordingly. If your brokerage site has a sub-page for every agent and every listing in that agent’s inventory pointing back to the brokerage homepage there is a lot of potential for bad links to negatively impact the brokerage site as a whole.  Especially if agents, admins, staff have bought in/purchased/taken part of any  false claimed link building programs, that assert they will get their listings and their vanity sub-domains to the top of the search engine rankings.  The disavow tool is just a way for brokerage webmasters to give Google a hint that they have done what they could to get rid of these tactics, and there are still some lingering sites that will not remove their links back to the brokerage domain.

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Here are three major takeaways to understand about Google Disavow

1. The majority of websites will never need this tool
If you are the average website owner, you follow good guidelines or a simple mom-and-pop shop, there’s a good chance that you will not need this tool. This tool will only be used by those who participate in SEO efforts and have spammy link profiles that they would like to clean up or that are lingering from outdated SEO tactics.

2. Clean up as many links as possible directly with the website first
Google always recommends to work directly with the website to get all the spammy links taken down before using this tool. They suggest only using this tool as a last resort if you cannot get a hold of the website or cannot get it taken down.

3. Take your time, do research and be cautious when using this tool
You must really take your time to use this tool correctly, if you don’t, you may be doing more harm than good. Use Google webmaster and Open Site Explorer to download your inbound links and carefully research all the spammy links.

Use Google’s Disavow Links Tool the Right Way

Ultimately, Google’s Disavow Tool can be a powerful resource that complements Google’s recent link preference updates and offers sites options beyond spammy former practices.  Used in moderation, this tool will shape the way in which websites develop and ideally help to usher in an age of integrity-rich link building strategies. Be proactive in managing your link profile.

But for truly successful SEO it is important to keep looking forward. If you continue to focus on generating good, organic content that people want to link to and share, future Google updates will have little effect on your website.

Jun 10 / bschwartz

Picture Perfect

VHT Studios in the press! New York based photographer, Elizabeth Dooley, explains to Fox & Friends why bad photos may be preventing you from selling your house. This is information every agents and home seller should know.