Is Social Rank Dying Already?

Dec 17th

There has been a lot of talk in the SEO Community about Social Rank

And some talk that it might die soon.

What Is "Social Rank"

As far as the SEO is concerned, social rank is the idea that Google, and other search engines, use social networking indicators in their ranking algorithms. If you get mentioned and linked to often, from social media profiles, this helps your site rank in the search engines.

Check out Danny Sullivan's Q&A session on this topic with Google and Bing representatives.

Do you calculate whether a link should carry more weight depending on the person who tweets it?

Yes we do use this as a signal, especially in the “Top links” section [of Google Realtime Search]. Author authority is independent of PageRank, but it is currently only used in limited situations in ordinary web search

Google intimate it's tied in with PageRank, which Danny also discusses.

To some degree, “humans” on the web have pages that already represent their authority.

For example, my Twitter page has a Google PageRank score of 7 out of 10, which is an above average degree of authority in Google’s link counting world. Things I link to from that page — via my tweets — potentially get more credit than things someone whose Twitter page has a lower PageRank score. (NOTE: PageRank scores for Twitter pages are much different if you’re logged in and may show higher scores. This seems to be a result of the new Twitter interface that has been introduced. I’ll be checking with Google and Twitter more about this, but I’d trust the “logged out” scores more).

Google is a vote counting engine, so it isn't surprising they count votes from social network sites. It should also come as no surprise Google uses Twitter to help determine interest in news events, as the Twitter platform lends itself to news. This will then flow through into their news ranking. There are also the indirect benefits i.e. the attention generates articles and commentary, which then link back to your site.

All links are valuable, because attention - human, spider, or both - travels along them. Google will always be interested in who is paying the most attention to what. If people are using social networks to do that, then that is where Google needs to be.

Of course, like search, Social Media it is open to abuse.

How To Do Blackhat Social Rank

Black or grey, here are a few of the more aggressive tactics in use:

  • Fake Profiles - auto gen an entire network of friends
  • Duplicate/Fake Content - plenty of auto-gen tools about that will make posts and requests on your behalf
  • Pay Important People To Tweet Your Link As Editorial - or put your link on their profile page
  • Buy Social Media Accounts

You might have spotted a few more.

The social services will, of course, combat any threat they deem detrimental to their business. Just like in search, the game will be never-ending, as the blackhats find holes in the system, and the engineers plug them. And just like times past in SEO, the ethical debate rears its head.

Is it morally "right" or "wrong" to use technique X, Y and Z?

All a bit silly, really. People will use a technique regardless of other people's ethical dilemmas, so long as it works. It's up to the social networks, and Google, to stop what they might consider abusive practices from working, or paying off.

And they will, although they've probably got their work cut out for them. It's one thing to look at a page about, say, fitness and determine the links running along the bottom for "ring tones", "bad credit loans" and "viagra" are likely dodgy, but another thing to look at profile activity and determine whether there is a human behind it.

Social media is evolving quickly, and it will take time to patch issues, both technically and culturally. So I'm sure the blackhats will be having fun for some time yet.

Personalized Social Recommendations

Google sometimes may list results from your "social circle" at the bottom of the organic search results. The good thing about these results is that most of the recommendations are fairly transparent & benign.

Bing is displaying Facebook like data & Blekko is pushing harder at integrating Facebook likes into their algorithm as well.

A "like" might have multiple meanings depending on who is doing it. Do the votes for this page "like" Google, PPCBlog, PPCBlog's explanation of Google, search in general, algorithms, SEO, infographics, technology, marketing, or ...?

In search there is a concept of stop-words, which are words that would not be counted much because they are so common they don't really tell you much about a piece of content. Some keywords (say mesothelioma) have a higher discrimination value than others (say the). A "like" it doesn't have a great discrimination value, largely because you don't know why someone liked something. The nuanced subtleties are lost without context. Something might be liked because it is clever, in-depth, correct, humorous, offensive, and incorrect - all at the same time! It all comes down to interpretation & perspective.

Some people will offer tips on "scaling your social footprint" and such, but the trade off is that on networks where relationships are reciprocal (like on Facebook) you can't add a friend without having that friend added to your account. Brands, on the other hand, can offer an endless array of discounts and promotions. If a search engine puts too much weight on likes then companies will simply run giveaways, contests, and pricing specials to collect votes.

"Likes" are so low effort they will be easily manipulated, even amongst real account holders. Over time these votes will be every bit as polluted as the link graph (or maybe moreso) because there are so many ways to influence people individually (click the below like button for $2 off your order, etc). Such offers might fall outside of the terms of service of some networks, but it is worth noting that when Google was promoting their reviews service they violated their own TOS.

In addition to likes being easy to manipulate, some flavors of social are heavily spammed because many people use the tools simply for reciprocal promotion. I likely have over 1,000 friends on Facebook & yet I have no idea who 90%+ of the people are. Am I recommending the stuff that some of those people recommend? An algorithm that assumes I am is likely leading people astray. And you might be friends with someone while knowing that their business life is quite shady when compared against their personal life (or the other way around). Are you endorsing everything a person does?

Further, anyone can invest in creating one piece of great content that scores tons of "likes" while operating in an exploitative manner elsewhere (and/or later). It is just like the wave of bulk unsolicited emails I get promoting 'non-profit' directories which one month later require 3 or 4 page scrolls to get past all the lead generation forms, while yet claiming to be non-profit. :D

And social networks decay over time:

  • Friendster lost out due to bad management, and MySpace the same.
  • GeoCities closed last year. Delicious has had an upswing in spam, and Yahoo! has it scheduled for sunset soon.
  • And even outside of those sorts of broad platform shifts, people change over time. Years ago I might have recommended working with someone like Patrick Gavin or Andy Hagans, but I wouldn't dare do so today. Likewise a particular tip or product might be exceptionally profitable for a period of time & then eventually decay to a near sure bet money loser. Opportunities do not last forever. Marketers must change with the markets. Other products might have undesirable side effects that later come to surface. Add in media based on more precise measurements & pageview chasing, and the conflicts between recommendations + media coverage will scare some folks into not participating. Associating recommendations with individuals will cause blowback as some of the seeds turn sour & people blame the person who recommended them to the person/product/service that screwed them over. The link graph allows those with undesirable reputations to slowly fade into obscurity, whereas old likes remain in place & can cause a social conflict years down the road.

Using Social Media For SEO Purposes

A link is a marker of attention.

Google will always want to count markers of attention. Blackhat trickery aside, in order to make social media work for you, and create side effects in terms of ranking, you should build both a presence in social media, and a craft messages that are likely to be spread by social media.

It's much like PR. Public Relations, as opposed to PageRank.

Start by defining your audience. Who do you know that talks to that audience? Try to get to know as many people as possible in your audience, especially the movers and shakers who already talk with them.

Get movers and shakers to spread your message. That may involve payment of some kind. Reciprocation, favor, cash, drugs, booze, hookers. Whatever works.

Joke.

Or - and this is probably the most effective path - craft a message so interesting, they'll find it hard not to spread.

Think about how you spin your message. Think in terms of benefit. How will the audience benefit from knowing this information? What is in it for them? What are they curious about? Feed their curiosity. Sometimes, it's not the message, but the way it is stated.

Plan ahead. Can you spin your message around a public event, like a holiday? Or a current event? Or a popular personality?

Get out and meet people face-to-face. People are much more likely to be receptive to your ideas if they really do know you.

But there is a danger in overthingking this stuff. A few well placed links to a site can still get you top ten in Google, even if you have no social media presence at all. Social media is just another string to the bow.

Oh, The Opportunity

Dec 16th
posted in

I'm doing keyword research.

The opportunities I see before me still amaze me.

Keyword lists, showing the frequency of searches, are market research nirvana. It's like being a god, delving deep into the minds of mortals.

And most people outside SEO. Still. Don't. Get. It.

Ever explained keywords to people, and received blank looks in return?

We can trawl through a keyword research tool and list thousands of niche business opportunities. Demand is on display. It is being broadcast to us.

Once we discover demand, we measure the competition, quantify the opportunity, build a site, and dive into the demand streams that have existed long before the internet was invented.

Demand, meet supply.

Just look at all this demand:

  • "japanese translation" 450,000 Monthly searches
  • "hospital jobs" 823,000 Monthly searches
  • "forklift certification" 27,100 Monthly searches
  • "address labels" 301,000 Monthly searches
  • "digital signage" 201,000 Monthly searches
  • "student credit cards" 135,000 Monthly searches
  • "coin collecting" 60,500 Monthly searches

And as we know, that's just ONE keyword per niche. The real gems can be found deeper into the long tail of associations, permeations, and similarities.

The search channel still amazes me.

It's so powerful, and so under-rated.

Mad Men

Have you seen Mad Men?

If you haven't, it's a great show about an advertising agency, set in the 1960's. The ad executives were the rockstars of the time, paid well to know what was on the minds of consumers.

What would they have made of a keyword research tool, I wonder?

Or our digital zeitgeist?

And unlike fifty years ago, there are fewer barriers to entry to many traditional markets. In the past, in order to compete-nation wide, or internationally, a huge, multinational machine, of people and capital, was needed. Now, with a credit card, we just tap into a vast network in an instant.

Fifty years ago, publishing a book was difficult and expensive. A large publishing company could get shelf space at a major retail outlet, but you couldn't. Probably still can't. You needed to print many copies, a risk and cost out of reach of most people. A publisher could reach out to reviewers, and work the publicity machines.

Now we can compete.

We can get more far more reach, in in much less time, for a fraction of the cost.

So many niches, so little time.

So, what are you going to do today?

Keyword Research Resources

Google's Missing Disclosure

Dec 15th

Netflix's Risky Position

One of the fundamental keys to monetizing third party content is finding a way to do it while keeping your earnings data abstract. A huge problem that hits pure plays like Netflix is that as soon as companies see the profits the cost structures change.

  • Comcast is looking to get some funds from Level 3 (for distribution of Neflix content), and
  • Partners who license video content to Netflix want a bigger piece of the action as well: "Now many of the companies that make the shows and movies that Netflix delivers to mailboxes, computer screens and televisions — companies whose stocks have not enjoyed the same frothy rise, and whose chief executives have not won the same accolades — are pushing back, arguing that the company is overhyped, and vowing to charge much more to license their content."

Making big money on someone else's content makes the content owner look stupid. As soon as you let big media know you are making money on their content they get pissed and feel they rightfully earned that money. As they sense a shift in power any edge cases become the standard against which all other deals are compared.

How Youtube Differs From Netflix

If you study Google & listen to their quarterly conference calls you will always come away with the following: YouTube is operating at an amazing scale, Youtube's growth is accelerating, and YouTube might not be profitable. In the most recent quarterly call Google highlighted that their display network was a $2.5 billion business, but we never hear specific revenue or cost stats from YouTube. Hiding that business within the larger Google enterprise allows Google to print money and gain leverage without evoking the wrath of big media.

Sure there is the Viacom lawsuit, but Youtube streams over 2 billion videos a day with roughly 1 in 7 of those views being monetized. The growth trends keep accelerating, with revenues more than doubling each year, but Google doesn't have to deal with the Netflix issue of margin collapse from partners - because they don't break out profits.

Legislating Profits

Many large scammy/criminal corporations (like the too big to fail bankers & the huge pharma companies) have their 'profits' legislated, even as they destroy the economy. Their political kickbacks to politicians are so strong that in spite of committing multiple repeated felonies, they have enough political sway that third parties create scammy non-profits promoting these brigands to win political favor.

Google claims they are not dominant, but they do not sit in an area where they can legislate their own profits. So they must operate in the gray area elsewhere to sustain and grow their profits.

Alternate Paths to Endless Cash

Cashing Out Brand Equity

Have a trademark? Are you not buying your own brand? Don't worry, a competitor will. Prior Google research (and Google sales material) have shown consumer confusion from some of these activities

But Google has a great legal team & have managed to grow profits by forcing brands to buy their own existing brand equity, even if it adds 0 revenues & significant costs for the advertiser.

Cloaking + DRM = Win

Remember how Google doesn't like cloaking? But they will DRM manage your media for you & if someone views it outside of the appropriate area they will get a "screw you" page, likeso:

(If you are from the US you can see how content is cloaked in various countries by using web proxies or VPN services.)

Copyright is for Suckers

Is Google a more authoritative book seller than Barnes & Nobles? Other than lying & taking a few legal shortcuts, what puts Google in a superior position as a book seller?

At least their (lack of) respect for copyright is consistent.

You Need to Disclose, but Google Does NOT

Remember back when Google claimed that anyone buying or selling links needed to do it in a way that is both machine readable & human readable? Well, Google invested in Viglinks, which is certainly 100% counter to that spirit. Further, consider Google's recent hard coding of ebook promotions in their search results. There is no ad label in a machine readable or human readable format, but they mix it right in their 'organic' search results.

Remember how paid links were bad?

"Search engine guidelines require machine-readable disclosure of paid links in the same way that consumers online and offline appreciate disclosure of paid relationships (for example, a full-page newspaper ad may be headed by the word 'Advertisement')" - Google.

If you do the same thing Google does, then you are violating their guidelines. Sorta hard to compete with them while staying inside their guidelines then, eh?

If Google expects you to label your paid ads in machine and human readable ways, then why are they fine with blending their ads directly into the organic search results with no disclaimer? Do they actually believe that manipulating end users (to promote their own business deals) is less evil than potentially manipulating a search tool?

The absurdity reminds me of a quote from You Are Not a Gadget:

If you want to know what's really going on in a society or ideology, follow the money. If money is flowing to advertising instead of musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than truth or beauty. If the content is worthless, then people will start to become empty-headed and contentless.

The combination of hive mind and advertising has resulted in a new kind of social contract. The basic idea of this contract is that authors, journalists, musicians, and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising.

Google Launches MILLIONS of Doorway Pages

Dec 13th

I mentioned this in our last post but it probably deserves a post of its own. ;)

Google has long claimed that search results inside search results are a poor user experience. They also claim their use of your content is fair use because it is only for ranking and distribution purposes.

Take a look at Google's deskbar subdomain. Google has created MILLIONS of pages on this subdomain:

These pages ARE ranking in the search results:

Google's quest to become the web is leading them to produce a lot of half done products (is eHow's content written at a higher level than Matt Cutts writes) & an increasing variety of bugs. These of course create opportunity for some folks, but a whole lot of pain for many folks who have done nothing wrong other than trusting Google to be competent & fair.

I understand ready, fire, aim on on beta tests or things for start ups, but should Google be doing this sort of silliness with a search service millions depend on?

So much of their originality algorithms determine what is the true source on the internet; the moment bugs like this appear, that trustworthiness is tarnished, and the people who poured sweat blood and tears into a product can be wiped out with a flip of a deskbar.google.com launch.

What Does a Spammer Do?

Dec 13th

Relevancy

Search engines are powerful because they are an editorial filter which encourages relevancy.

Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better

Frequently we are marketed to that any errors or omissions on the part of search engines are not due to bad algorithms, but rather do to unscrupulous spammers.

Webmaster guidelines are arbitrary & ever-shifting, and preached like gospel. The 'or else' fear mindset is a primary component of the algorithm.

And yet when some of the largest & most outrageous guideline violations are brought to light, they are quickly dismissed & swept under the rug.

In some cases search engineers conflate SEOs with hackers who are doing illegal activities, but if all marketers & advertisers were criminals then Google.com would top that list, given that ~ 99% of their revenues come from ads & fewer than 100 countries have a GDP greater than Google's revenues. :D

Are 'Spammers' Relevant?

Further claims against spammers include irrelevancy. That was true before I got into the search game (and in some edge cases might be true today), but most spammers try to be relevant. Back in the late 90's when "any page view will do" banner advertising ruled the web all one needed to profit was page views by any means. But as marketing has become more precise and more closely measured, it has become more relevant. With current online marketing being more driven by true conversion performance, relevancy is key. If you show up where you are not relevant you are simply wasting your time & money.

Search engines have a CPM higher than virtually any other type of media format precisely because their ads are so relevant.

Who Promotes Inferior Product?

Let's skip the fact that Google's ad system is set up to maximize yield, while ignoring that Google AdSense has a get rich quick ad category. Looking beyond those, the core argument against spammers is that they pollute the organic search results & leverage Google's distribution to bring inferior product to market.

You know who else does that?

Google.

Yelp Inc. CEO Jeremy Stoppelman has complained about Google's use of Yelp content for Google Place pages and is negotiating with Google over the issue. He said Google "is trying to leverage its distribution power"—the search engine—"to take an inferior product and put it in front of the user."

According to the above WSJ article, TripAdvisor's search traffic from Google is off over 10% since Google Place pages gained prominent placement in the search results. Not only does Google borrow 3rd party content & then use that to displace the source, but they also pay 3rd parties to do the same.

What is the real reason Google hates spammers?

Competition.

In Google's ideal world they would build a media empire by scraping whoever's content they want, monetizing it however they like, and paying partners a prescribed share of the revenues, right up until Google finds another partner which is willing to accept less.

It is true with text, with communities, with news, with pictures, with video, with trademarks, and soon ebooks.

Richard Nixon's Take on Google

Here are MILLIONS of doorway pages Google created (and many of these are ranking in Google, even though users do not like 'search results in search results')

It reminds me a lot of Richard Nixon: "well when Google does it, that means it is not spam." Indeed!

Careful out there, the world is a spammy place. ;)

Google's Keyword Tools Keep Getting Better :)

Dec 9th

When Google switched to their new keyword tool a lot of advertisers were ticked off by how it went from being quite granular & focused to being more broad and presumptuous. It defaulted from allowing you to drill down in a specific area to assuming that you wanted to buy a broader basket of keywords than you asked for, which particularly doesn't make sense when you think about how Quality Score punishes irrelevant ads.

Based on user feedback / complaints they updated the tool to offer 3 different filters: more like this, include or exclude keywords, and a setting which makes the search optionally tighter if turned on.

Given the keyword categorization, localization, trending data, match type options, these new filters, handy CSV export options & all the data they offer it is becoming quite a great tool with a variety of unique use cases for market research. It's so efficient that you can do a lot of work in a couple minutes, but it's so addictive you can spend hours playing with it. :)

Unfortunately Google was recently one upped on this front - by Google! ;)

Google recently announced a new keyword tool built around estimating the size of various global markets. The regular keyword tool let you do this as well, but this new keyword tool allows you to compare market sizes (by search demand) side by side at a glance, and it also lists relevant related local keywords in other language which have roughly the same meaning. Awesome stuff Google!

TripAdvisor Tells Google Places to Go Take a Hike

Dec 9th

As Google creates a thin review layer to displace some of the directories they are driving into bankruptcy, some of the wiser middle men are telling Google to go get stuffed. TripAdvisor reviews disappeared from Google Place pages due to a technical issue, but then they stayed disappeared due to TripAdvisor passing on Google's generous offer to borrow their content & use it to replace them in the search ecosystem:

Google is no longer able to stream in reviews from TripAdvisor to Places pages after the user review giant blocked it.

TripAdvisor confirmed the move today in an email, stating that while it continues to evaluate recent changes to Google Places it believes the user does not benefit with the “experience of selecting the right hotel”.

“As a result, we have currently limited TripAdvisor content available on those pages,” an official says.

As Google spreads into a B2C player & tries to offer up suggestions for everything the top market leaders in many big markets (like Yelp & TripAdvisor) will tell them to screw off. However, players 2 through x will be desperate enough for exposure that they are driven by short term thinking. Google's ebook news mentioned that software is in place to do bundled deals to sell hard copies with the electronic versions. And just look at the direct to consumer marketing Google is doing in Japan.

Eventually market leaders will be offered concessions for deals, or Google will partner with lower placed businesses to slowly wear down the advantage of market leaders with a slow water torture treatment. But for now TripAdvisor stands on its own.

The positive news for Google in this is that the search results offer a wide range of excellent hiking boots for Googlers to choose from :D

Bleeding Edge Reverse PR SEO Strategy

Dec 7th
posted in

Here's a sure-fire way to get ranked high in Google.

Piss people off.

Reportedly, DecorMyEyes founder Vitaly Borker was arrested and charged with defrauding customers, and making repeated and violent threats to customers who attempted to return defective goods.

Not a fan of "How To Win Friends And Influence People", then :)

This bit will interest SEO fans:

Hello, My name is Stanley with DecorMyEyes.com,” the post began. “I just wanted to let you guys know that the more replies you people post, the more business and the more hits and sales I get. My goal is NEGATIVE advertisement.”It’s all part of a sales strategy, he said. Online chatter about DecorMyEyes, even furious online chatter, pushed the site higher in Google search results, which led to greater sales. He closed with a sardonic expression of gratitude: “I never had the amount of traffic I have now since my 1st complaint. I am in heaven

If you look at the backlinks for DecorMyEyes.com, you'll find a significant volume of inbound linking, some of which is junk, but also includes links from the likes of the New York Times. The high-profile links are a direct result of bad publicity.

Of course, this has always been the fly in Google's ointment. Google's link-oriented approach to ranking reflects the attention a site receives. This doesn't necessarily mean the site is endorsed, and in this case, the opposite is true.

Facing a PR disaster, in all senses of the word, Google were quick to act:

We were horrified to read about Ms. Rodriguez’s dreadful experience. Even though our initial analysis pointed to this being an edge case and not a widespread problem in our search results, we immediately convened a team that looked carefully at the issue. That team developed an initial algorithmic solution, implemented it, and the solution is already live

Hmmm....was the algorithmic solution "if domain = DecorMyEyes.com, then PR=0" :)

Jokes aside, Google outlined the options they could have taken to prevent such a problem, but chose not to, then cryptically hint at the step they did eventually take:

Instead, in the last few days we developed an algorithmic solution which detects the merchant from the Times article along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience. The algorithm we incorporated into our search rankings represents an initial solution to this issue, and Google users are now getting a better experience as a result

Reading between the lines, it is clear that.......erm.......hmmmm.........I don't know about you, but I'm none the wiser! That could mean anything! Assembling a team of hand editors to baby sit the results of an algo, or the beginnings of some frightfully clever semantic analysis.

Hard to tell.

Google make out the case is an outlier, although that would only be true on the surface. The fundamental problem, for Google, is link context, and that is a far more difficult problem to solve.

Link As A Vote

When Google started, they used a clever backlink check as a form of voting. The more backlinks a site had, from sites deemed to be authoritative, the higher the rank.

But the web has changed.

These days, we have Facebook and social media. Most people on the web aren't web publishers in the traditional sense. Most people participate on the web, but don't have their own websites. They post on other people's sites, over which they have little control. Google has to make sense of all this, because Google still wants to know what information people pay the most attention to.

The beating heart of a link is a mark of attention.

Google collects markers of attention.

As the PR - as in public relations - problem with DecorMyEyes reveals, popularity and authority calculations are not enough. Google's black box also has to figure out context. Most SEOs would guess Google is putting a lot of work into semantic analysis.

This is why it is becoming increasingly important to treat SEO as a public relations exercise. Links can come from anywhere, and whether they are no-followed, scripted or otherwise, they are all markers of attention. Google's job will always be to collect them, and make sense of them. To the webmaster, all markers of attention are valuable.

Well, almost all.

DecorMyEyes turned it into a marketing strategy, but in terms of SEO, it was never going to last. First rule of SEOClub is that you don't publicly embarrass Google.

The Lesson

Be interesting.

In a useful way.

Oscar Wilde said "the only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about". Malcolm Mclaren said something similar: "bad publicity isn't as good as good publicity, it is ten times better". Brendan Behan "All publicity is good, except an obituary notice".

Get positive ratings. "Encourage" reviews. Go to where your customers are, and get the conversation started. Do you have a story? Be controversial, if it suits. Find an angle and work it. Link out.

When you think PR, think Public Relations.

Google's Media Empire

Dec 6th

Open = Good

For years Google has championed the concept of an open web. Some took it as an altruistic sign, while others thought it was a convenient angle to commoditize complimentary business models.

Google pushed for net neutrality but made wireless connections an exception. Why would they do that? Could it be they are invested in disrupting that market elsewhere?

The Rise of Brand as a Signal of Trust

As Google started to reach the bulk of potential returns based on direct response they started to lean on brands as a signal of quality & recommend brands more in their search results. When you search for Amazon you might get 8 or 9 links from the official site & even on some generic keywords Google recommends associated brands.

Why Brand Creates a Sustainable Advantage

When you think about what brand is, it is a mental shorthand for a concept. It leads to increased recall, fatter sustained profit margins, and thus the ability to spend more on marketing. If Google is to put more weight on reviews and look at sentiment analysis then of course that will benefit the larger players who invested into establishing positive associations, even at a young age. The results of such branding efforts are quite powerful.

And even moreso if you don't use them for evil, Pepsi! :D

Affiliates Are Evil, Except When They Are Named Google

In the past Google has positioned that affiliates are evil (the body language says it all IMHO), though there are Google's remote quality rater documents which provide further proof to anyone with lingering doubts.

As Google is becoming the affiliate they are getting direct signals into what consumers like most & are able to serve them a personalized recommendation engine. New extended ad formats & using location data will allow Google to further drive down the organic results.

Free Traffic For Free Data, for a While

Not only does Google sell CPA priced product ads on their search results, but they also allow your Google Base account to drive additional product links, which gives them over 150 million products to advertise. The name of the game is to give Google a bit more data to get a higher clickthrough rate & thus have a higher quality score & be enabled for additional profitable opportunities sold at below fair market rates. That seems like a free lunch and works great, up until the day Google decides to use the aggregate data to compete directly against you. ;)

Google now runs a thin affiliate site in Boutiques.com. Google's ability to recommend consumption behaviors not only impacts ecommerce, but every type of media in the world. They control the ad rates of various advertisers & can create custom ad integration opportunities.

Google's Role in Media Consumption

Youtube offers related videos, a never-ending personalized streaming service in LeanBack and ads which users can select from.

When Google started scanning books it was supposed to be for search, rather than to have ebooks for sale. A couple lawsuits later and today Google finally opened up their ebook marketplace.

One of the leading features of Google's 'open' marketplace is DRM: "Publishers can choose whether or not to lock down their books with DRM. Google also says it will have a strict privacy policy that forbids it from using your book buying habits to advertise to, or profile readers." If you are outside of the United States the store is simply unavailable. That same article states that "Google hopes to layer on social features into the service in the near-future and says the infrastructure is in place to let people buy both a digital and paper copy of a book in a bundle."

Would that be Google moving from pushing bits & people to pushing physical products?

Clean Up on Aisle 3

Google announced their copyright "improvements" in front of the Viacom vs Youtube copyright lawsuit appeal.

Meanwhile Google is the same company which published this & recommends keygens and serials when you search for a brand. Google promises to fix that later issue - something that has only took them a few YEARS to do, even though they were blocking porn words (& other words that could have earned them negative press) much sooner.

In much the same way that Google has captured most of the revenue streams they will be able to with direct response ads, I think they realize that they will need to work better at managing property rights of big media & other publishers if they really want to drive brand advertising revenues. This will likely lead to a decline of the "anything goes" web.

From 'Anything Goes' to Respecting Property Rights

The whole reason Google was so liberal in their approach to supporting (and even funding) copyright violation it was so that they could weaken the positions of the companies that hold those rights, such that Google can eventually negotiate a deal with them. But the main thing holding back Google music is that based on Google's past performance the labels do not trust the idea of a digital music locker hosted by Google. After all, Google AdSense ads are what allow sites dedicated to downloading MP3s from Youtube to be monetized today.

Google offers promotional links on Youtube & knows how much money they are missing out on. Google's boondoggle of using public relations to paint a clean show publicly while using legal loopholes to circumvent the intent of the law was good for getting them into a strong market position, but if they want to have a leadership position in more big media markets they will need to get buy in from established players.

Google wants to get big into television ads. And that is going to mean having better respect for copyright. To some degree as we see the Google business model change we will see their approach of "paying anyone to steal anything & wrap it in Google ads" (to soften up copyright) change to a model where the put themselves as a gatekeeper on DRM content & push the "official" sources of the media (and try to make a cut of the profits). Already on Youtube if you view certain content from outside the United States they will tell you that it is unavailable in your area.

Google's first video store was a complete failure. Once again they are pushing hard on video with Google TV & by buying the DRM company widevine. Big media companies have opted out of Google TV awaiting more favorable deals.

Part of such deals will ultimately rely on backroom payouts coupled with hard coded promotions. There will be a lot of collateral damage as entire categories become unprofitable for those who do not have direct access. I think we are seeing the organic search results take a page from the ad book: pay to play.

Google's old model of paying people to scrape content & wrap it in ads was leading to a market for lemons, where the top ranked piece of text might often be seen as relevant, but certainly wasn't useful.

This transition was driven by a watering down of online content through Gresham's theorem. Much like how the most fraudulent banks could afford to buy out less fraudulent ones, and how Chinese milk with melamine was cheaper than real milk sent real companies into bankruptcy, the search results were suffering from the age of scrape/mash/publish. Given the surrounding economic forces crushing newspapers, Google was making things worse than they needed to be.

Those who are creating original high-quality content have real business costs. Google paying scraper sites like Mahalo and Ask to borrow your content & wrap it in ads means that you are sometimes getting outranked for scraped duplications of your own content. That drives down publisher margins and pushes marginally profitable publishers into losing money, and eventually, bankruptcy.

Google news has been described as a sewage factory plagued with nefarious players & is now undergoing clean up as well.

What Are You the Official Source For?

Slowly but surely the search results will fill up with official hotel sites, official music sources, official video sources, official ebook sources, etc etc etc ... with Google putting a big foot on the gas & accepting whatever cut they can get. If they want to avoid regulatory scrutiny they need to work with the official sources (which are every bit as politically connected as Google is).

As that shift happens the longtail spam model will lose out on its profitability because it will be forced to compete with higher quality content that is automatically mixed into the search results. (The whole point of universal search was to allow Google to short cut certain types of information right into the core search results...as they start making money from micro-payments and such look for that trend to accelerate).

Ultimately what has doomed most portals was that they were willing to produce second rate holder stuff that filled out a vertical and was 'good enough.' What makes Google so powerful with the stealth backdoor portal approach is that it allows them to mix 3rd party content without forcing them to either absorb the cost or create low quality backfill stuff on their own. As they have success with 1 partner that creates the narrative which brings other folks to the negotiation table.

One area that is ripe for ad innovations is books:

I’m genuinely glad to have Google enter this market because it will be reaching potential customers at a unique point in their book-buying journey: at the point of web search, not at the point of searching the bookstore. This means many things you didn’t realize a book can help you with—overcoming depression, remodeling a bathroom, making friends and influencing people—will now be surfaced alongside all the YouTube and other results Google will offer. This is a net plus for books.

But the ultimate effect of Google e-books, if Google knows what’s good for it, will be the creation of an ad-supported publishing model.

Now that books are digital & Google has rights to sell them, I would expect in the next year or 2 that Google starts to display them in the organic search results more aggressively. The free samples can be monetized via ads & upsells of the whole book. That endless stream of editorially vetted content could put a dent in the content farm business model.

Google: Complexity is Good!

Dec 2nd

Google is growing *far* more complex.

Page x can rank based primarily on the criteria for page y from that same site. So if you analyze the data behind the page which is showing up in the search results, in some cases you will be looking at the wrong data sets!

Google has typically displayed page titles in the search results. However there are now numerous exceptions to that.

Google has aggressively pushed into regionalization and localization, but sometimes they miscategorize a website's target market or a user's location ... delivering irrelevant search results.

Sometimes Google pulls data from 3rd party data sources and lists that next to your listing. I mean, sure they have used DMOZ historically, but why exactly are they showing my site as having Russian text on it?

As Google grows in complexity, the number of bugs in their system multiply. Sometimes you don't rank because you screwed up. But sometimes you don't rank because Google screwed up. Typically Google sees minimal difference either way, as there will always be another website to fill up the search results. But as a business owner, when Google gets it wrong you can be screwed pretty bad, particularly if you stock physical inventory and have to tightly manage your supply chain & cash flow.

Recently Google created a news source attribution tag. If it works, it might be a good idea. But (even outside of spam) there are ways it can backfire.

Consider Google's webmaster verification tags. One of our customers had an outing with an old webmaster who in turn did a sneaky change of location inside of Google Webmaster Tools over the weekend. After seeing traffic fall off a cliff, we figured out what happened & registered the site in Google webmaster tools. There are instructions on how to remove the former registered user, however the option does not appear in my client's account.

The redirect will allegedly be in place for 180 days! The only way to get around it is to ask for a review by the Google engineering team.

In the past SEO was primarily about encouraging (and, perhaps, in some nefarious angles, coercing) Google into giving you a little more love. But now a big part of SEO is identifying & fixing Google bugs. And this is before you consider things like universal search, custom vertical result sets, search personalization, social layers, traffic shaping, changing crawling priorities, sites getting hacked, filters hit by aggressive SEO or competitive sabotage, more random filters, changing related words in search vocabularies, using search query chains, Google Instant shifting keyword demand profiles, search engines competing against SEOs by monetizing the organic search results, basic/straightforward SEO concerns, technical crawling & indexing related issues, improper server configurations, new additional signals being added to search - like sentiment analysis. etc.

A big part of brand building in terms of SEO is not only to help you build up passive organic links (and to be able to charge a premium for your product), but it is also something which helps establish a bit of a competitive moat from algorithmic errors & makes it harder for Google to accidentally dump you. Further, if you have brand & catch a Google bug there is little risk to asking for a review. But if you do not have brand then even asking for a review could be risky.

Anyone who tells you that 'SEO is easy' across the board is either ignorant or exceptionally ignorant.

Yahoo! Begins Monetizing Their 'Organic' Search Results

Dec 1st
posted in

You need to be from the United States (or have access to a US IP address) to see this ad, but Yahoo! is testing monetizing their organic search results.

An ad in the "organic" results? A sponsored shortcut? Say it ain't so.

And that is *before* Google releases their vouchers program & other ad options which will frequently extend AdWords ads and further push down the organic search results.

A bit of home cooking for the fellow IAC company.

Not that long ago I highlighted how exact match domains are often over-stated as an SEO strategy. The above is another dimension as to why. When you have 3 or 4 ads above the organics AND in some cases the organic results are monetized too, then if you rank #2 algorithmically you might be below the fold.

If that ranking for that 1 keyword is your strategy for building your unique competitive advantage, then of course you are going to lose badly to those who are investing into building solid brand equity. They will be able to outbid you for the clicks, so you are toast.

Domainers are already getting killed by parking revenue drops, browsers that turn the address bar into a search box, and now resell values are further being diminished by search engines which are deciding to eat the 'organic' search results with more ads.

Freetards

Dec 1st

The Golden Rule

The golden rule: "Treat others as you would like to be treated."

A subset of that is: "If you don't have something nice to say... don't say anything at all."

What the Golden Rule Misses

That is a guiding rule which generally helps people prevent themselves from wasting time and/or causing an issue by offending someone. But there are a few things that are missed by that rule:

  • It is easy to tell someone not to internalize stuff, but the truth is if you don't respond at all then over time those sorts of people can start to wear you down
  • If you do not respond to someone they may think they are correct & then spread their misinformation further, as some of them attribute a lack of response to "the smoking gun."
  • Some consider bluntness to be impolite, however the alternative is the destruction of the English language.

The Rise of Enraged Consumers

With the rise of social media there is a rise of consumers feeling empowered to threaten, extort, and slander businesses. The media goes so far as training consumers to do so!

Some businesses deserve it, however others have done nothing wrong other than being in front of an overly important individual. I am having trouble finding it right now, but a couple times people have threatened to smear my name and brand if I didn't give them a refund for some scammy crap they bought from someone else! They acknowledged that I wasn't associated with it, but they wanted their money back from someone & were willing to take it out of my brand if I wouldn't give it to them. And so I spoke French.

What Caused the Freetardation of the Web?

One time The Conumerist said they wouldn't link to our website because some other sites using infographics are spam, but then they ran our infographic (sans the attribution to the person who spend thousands of Dollars creating it and marketing it) and they got tons of awareness and exposure from our content. Sites like the Huffington Post do that sort of stuff all the time, and often become the canonical source for YOUR content.

Not only are there business models built on paying users to steal other's valuable content, stripping attribution & make it free (like Youtube), but the model is so acceptable online now that you can simply program bots to do it (see Ask or Mahalo).

Google claims to make copyright better online, but if you search on Google they will recommend looking for torrents, cracks, keygens, and serial numbers. A friend of mine even showed me a YouTube video which shared a DreamWeaver serial code in it. As a person who has bought their software 4 or 5 times now I think that is just awful!

What caused this sea shift? What caused people to expect & even DEMAND the labor of others for free?

I think a lot of it is an extension of the penny gap, an online bias towards ads, and open source software.

The Penny Gap

A lot of dumb people the world over are trained that Kim Kardashian and other such celebrities are important to their daily lives. In spite of all of this sort of stuff, Bing reported that for 2010 "free" was one of the top 10 searched for keywords on the web.

The penny gap is a concept where by charging *anything* for what you do you have to make it exceptionally better than anything which is freely accessible. Free is such a powerful psychological motivator that people will do irrational things for free. Such moves are largely driven by the fear of loss. If you turn down free you potentially lose out on something, but if you accept it there is no risk (that you are aware of, anyway) since it is "free." Anything that is paid not only has the risk of you being wrong, but it also has the risk of fine print.

The fine print isn't the only reason people get screwed though. The people who do the screw jobs via fine print techniques often pay a lot for exposure. And since the web (as a network) is optimized for generating maximum revenues it means that the people who eventually find you will likely become distrusting by the time they do, as they will already have got conned by someone else who is great at sales, but nothing else!

That will only reinforce the penny gap

Profitably Publishing in a World Dominated by the Penny Gap

Since so many people chase free, a lot of publishing business models are built around tricking people to click ads rather than selling something. In some circles you are viewed as sleazy for having an affiliate link in your content even if you buy and use what you are promoting & spend hours writing in-depth reviews and tutorials. Many of the same folks who view any affiliate link as sleazy carpet bomb their own websites with AdSense ads. And lets not forget that AdSense even has an ad category for "get rich quick."

Further, with Google launching Boutiques.com, selling CPA product ads on their search results, offering comparison lead generation forms on their search results, and running the Google affiliate network it is safe to say that Google is easily one of the top 5 affiliates in the world. If being an affiliate is so sleazy (and tricking people into ad clicks is somehow any better) then why is Google such a big affiliate & why do so many of their AdSense ads carry links promoting affiliate offers?

5 Online Business Models

The web has a bias toward making stuff somewhat free for most people & really monetizing the hell out of the pour souls who are naive enough to click the ads. As an online publisher you generally have 5 main business options

  • trick people into clicking ads
  • do biased reviews of hyped junk that rip people off
  • encourage negative reviews and extort businesses (illegal, and the model of some sites like RipOffReport)
  • honestly review and promote the best products and services available and monetize some of those efforts with affiliate links (I include networks like OpenTable in this category)
  • add enough value yourself that you can offer a product or service for sale

Anyone can easily do the first 3 models, but the last 2 are more challenging. The 4th one is hard because its easier to convince naive people to buy products that are built around the sales letters than it is to convince people to buy things where the sales letter was built around the product.

The tricky part with the last category...actually adding enough value to be able to charge...is that it is far harder than most people realize. The minute you publish anything publicly there are forces pushing to commoditize it (most open source software is a remake of an existing paid software solution rather than an entirely new category unto itself). Also, if someone buys something from you and gets a great return they may not want to mention it to others precisely because they rely so heavily on you and they are getting such great returns from your product or service. And even if you sell physical products, Google selling CPA ads to the likes of Wal-Mart can still drive you under unless you turn it from a product into a service (like Zappos has done).

Aggressive Sales Techniques Yield Bad Customers

If you are aggressive in your sales tactics you get customers you do not even want. The guy who created the Product Launch Formula stuff highlighted how he saw 30% refund rates on it. If you are not aggressive in your sales tactics then you will find affiliates tend to promote the stuff that is more aggressive, typically optimizing for yield rather than promoting what is best. That is how self-interested economics works.

Why You Should Give Something Away

The way to get around with having to compete with that sort of stuff is to rely on a freemium model.

In spite of the negative impacts of freetards, giving something away is almost a requirement of online marketing today in many competitive markets, particularly if you do not want to scam people & you are not sitting on an established brand and a mountain of cash.

You give some stuff away and set up a sales funnel, while hoping to eventually sell something else. This, in turn, is the tricky part. As soon as you set up *any* barriers you will get tons of complaints. If you optimize for minimizing complaints you would have to stop selling anything and just get a job working at Wal-Mart being paid just enough to live on (after you add in your food stamp income).

What Are You Optimizing?

Support is *not* free. Especially after you become popular and the value of your time increases. If people are too lazy to read the instructions or are too incompetent to follow directions they need to eat that. If you try to 'help' them they will not only eat your time, but also make your employees want to quit:

In talking with other plugin developers, it seems fairly universal that the reward for a successful plugin is a deluge of support email that includes the worst kind of sense of entitlement, rudeness and ignorance. The community as a whole seems to expect to be able to pay nothing, yet received expert and individual help and support for free.

One of my goals with WordPress HelpCenter was to try to affect change in this area. My belief was that we could work with plugin developers to have them send support requests to WPHC, have WPHC provide commercial support services, and give a revenue stream back to the plugin developers. While WPHC has been successful overall, it has utterly failed in this effort. What we found was that regardless of the actual issue, users experiencing trouble with a plugin blame the plugin. They assume it’s a coding problem (even though it isn’t in most cases), expect free support and are so rude that we’ve lost people from our team as a result

I would say anyone who pays you nothing and then steals your time *AND* your employees is the exact opposite of a customer: a freetard!

To clarify, all people who use your free stuff are not freetards, but the people who use it incompetently then curse at you and demand phone support and such certainly are freetards.

Ultimately you are not optimizing for the 99% of people who come across your website and never spend a Dollar. You are instead optimizing for the people who are considering purchasing. This gives you a diametric view of the market, where the same content receives a wide range of responses, which range from...

... right on through to ...

If you optimize to make that first person happy it means you lack internal respect and are throwing away over half of your income, because the second person won't have a sales funnel to build trust in you.

You can put an unsubscribe link in every email (we do), allow people to opt into the auto-responder or choose not to (we do), but you can't stop a person from taking steroids and/or missing their medication. A marketer who sets up a free email subscription on a site about marketing and then is angry about receiving free marketing tips is a complete idiot.

When people are polite (like the second example) I respond right back and try to help them as best I can. When someone acts like a steroid addicted enraged freetard who missed this morning's medications (like the first message, from K. Boostrom) I either ignore them or tell them to screw off. I usually ignore them, but when they provide curse words AND threats then they typically get a response. ;)

What constructive advice can you glean from

Because media and many software products have no cost to consumers people think that everything online (except whatever they sell) should be free. Not only should products be free, but so should services. Look at this lovely email from France

Note that it starts off with the obligatory insult, then complains about all the free stuff we offer AND the free content we give away. They then suggest I should SPEND my time and my money to give them a free consult. He also wants me to schedule my life around him being half-way around the world. The flip side of that is I have received numerous 3am wake up calls from people who looked up my phone number from our whois and decided I would like to have a chat about how incompetent they are.

I wish I could tell you that the above was a remarkable outlier, but sadly, such interactions are becoming more common. Hence using private registration.

The web is a great economic force. It makes information more accessible and for free. Many millionaires and billion Dollar companies are built on free open source software. But the reason open source software is free is that there are other means of monetization:

  • support is not free and/or
  • the site is a PageRank funnel to another monetized website (see Wikipedia/Wikia & Wordpress.org/Wordpress.com/Foodpress) and/or
  • the software builds network effects and/or awareness that builds stature, which can be monetized in other ways
  • the software acts as a recruitment tool to attract employees
  • etc etc etc

Help Wanted: Millionaire Seeking Free SEO Consultant

Some people might say that "well the freetards are just staring out, so you need to give them the benefit of the doubt." And part of why we offer so much for free is that I do remember where I came from and we do try to help people out. A lot!

But some of the freetards are anything but poor. Case in point:

Freetard vs Customer

How does Wordnet define a client?

Client:

  • a person who seeks the advice of a lawyer
  • customer: someone who pays for goods or services

Prospective customers can make absurd claims and announce desires that will clearly lose you money but they are NOT your customer until they pay you. And even then, if they are abusive you have the right to terminate the relationship.

Freetards ACT like they have paid you and want the benefits of your services without paying a cent.

In the years to come these trends mentioned above will only accelerate. And that means that you have to make a choice on who you want to work for and what you want your work life to be like. You can choose your customers or let them choose you. But part of the process needs to be filtering what you don't want, lest you end up with freetards threatening to give your paying customers a beat down.






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