Why is Great SEO so Expensive?

Mar 21st

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Why SEO is Expensive.

Native Advertising

Mar 21st

Native advertising presents opportunities for SEOs to boost their link building strategies, particularly those who favor paid link strategies.

What Is Native Advertising?

Native advertising is the marketing industries new buzzword for....well, it depends who you ask.

Native advertising can't just be about the creative that fills an advertising space. Native advertising must be intrinsically connected to the format that fits the user's unique experience. There's something philosophically beautiful about that in terms of what great advertising should (and could) be. But first, we need to all speak the same language around "native advertising.

Native advertising is often defined as content that seamless integrates with a site, as opposed to interruption media, such as pre-rolls on YouTube videos, or advertising that sits in a box off to the side of the main content.

It’s advertising that looks just like content, which is a big part of Google's success.

Here’s an example.

Some high-profile examples of native advertising include Facebook Sponsored Stories; Twitter's Promoted Tweets; promoted videos on YouTube, Tumblr and Forbes; promoted articles like Gawker's Sponsored Posts and BuzzFeed's Featured Partner content; Sponsored Listings on Yelp; promoted images on Cheezburger; and promoted playlists on Spotify and Radio.

One interesting observation is that Adwords and Adsense are frequently cited as being examples of native advertising. Hold that thought.

Why Native Advertising?

The publishing industry is desperate to latch onto any potential lifeline as ad rates plummet.

Analysts say the slowdown is being caused by the huge expansion in the amount of online advertising space as companies who manage this emerge to dominate the space. In short there’s just too many ad slots chasing ads that are growing, but at a rate slower than the creation of potential ad slots.

This means the chances are dimming that online ad spending would gradually grow to make up for some of the falls in analogue spending in print. ....staff numbers and the attendant costs of doing business have to be slashed heavily to account for the lower yield and revenue from online ads

And why might there be more slots than there are advertisers?

As people get used to seeing web advertising, and mentally blocking it out, or technically filtering it out, advertising becomes less effective. Federated Media, who were predominantly a display advertising business, got out of display ads late last year:

“The model of ‘boxes and rectangles’ – the display banner – is failing to fully support traditional ‘content’ sites beyond a handful of exceptions,” wrote Federated Media founder John Battelle in a recent blog post. He explained that the next generation of native ads on social networks and strength of Google Adwords make direct sales more competitive, and that ad agencies must evolve with the growing trend of advertisers who want more social/conversational ad campaigns.

Advertisers aren't seeing enough return from the advertising in order for them to want to grab the many slots that are available. And they are lowering their bids to make up for issues with publishing fraud. The promise of native advertising is that this type of advertising reaches real users, and will grab and hold viewers attention for longer.

This remains to be seen, of course.

Teething Pains

Not all native advertising works. It depends on the context and the audience. Facebook hasn’t really get it right yet:

Facebook is still largely centered around interactions with people one knows offline, making the appearance of marketing messages especially jarring. This is particularly true in mobile, where Sponsored Stories take up a much larger portion of the screen relative to desktop. Facebook did not handle the mobile rollout very gracefully, either. Rather than easing users into the change, they appeared seemingly overnight, and took up the first few posts in the newsfeed. The content itself is also hit or miss – actions taken by distant friends with dissimilar interests are often used as the basis for targeting Sponsored Stories.

If you’re planning on offering native advertising yourself, you may need to walk a fine line. Bloggers and other publishers who are getting paid but don’t declare so risk alienating their audience and destroying their reputation.

Some good ways of addressing this issue are policy pages that state the author has affiliate relationships with various providers, and this is a means of paying for the site, and does not affect editorial. Whether it’s true or not is up to the audience to decide, but such transparency up-front certainly helps. If a lot of free content is mixed in with native content, and audiences dislike it enough, then it might pave the way for more paid content and paywalls.

Just like any advertising content, native advertising may become less effective over time if the audience learns to screen it out. One advantage for the SEO is that doesn’t matter so much, so long as they get the link.

Still, some big players are using it:

Forbes Insights and Sharethrough today announced the results of a brand study to assess adoption trends related to native video advertising that included senior executives from leading brands such as Intel, JetBlue, Heineken and Honda. The study shows that more than half of large brands are now using custom brand videos in their marketing, and when it comes to distribution, most favor “native advertising” approaches where content is visually integrated into the organic site experience, as opposed to running in standard display ad formats. The study also shows that the majority of marketers now prefer choice-based formats over interruptive formats.

Google’s Clamp-Down On Link Advertising

So, what’s the difference between advertorial and native content? Not much, on the face of it, except in one rather interesting respect. When it comes to native advertising, it’s often not obvious the post is sponsored.

Google has, of course, been punishing links from advertorial content. One wonders if they've punished themselves, of course.

The Atlantic, BuzzFeed and Gawker — are experimenting with new ad formats such as sponsored content or “native advertising,” as well as affiliate links. On Friday, Google engineer Matt Cutts reiterated a warning from the search giant that this kind of content has to be treated properly or Google will penalize the site that hosts it, in some cases severely.

If native advertising proves popular with publishers and advertisers, then it’s going to compete with Google’s business model. Businesses may spend less on Adwords and may replace Adsense with native advertising. It’s no surprise, then, that Google may take a hostile line on it. However, publishers are poor, ad networks are rich, so perhaps it's time that publishers became ad networks.

When it comes to SEO, given Google’s warning shots, SEOs will either capitulate - and pretty much give up on paid links - or make more effort to blend seamlessly into the background.

Blurring The Lines

As Andrew Sullivan notes, the editorial thin blue line is looking rather “fuzzy”. It may even raise legal questions about misrepresentation. There has traditionally been a church and state divide between advertising and editorial, but as publishers get more desperate to survive, they’re going to go with whatever works. If native advertising works better than the alternatives, then publishers will use it. What choice have they got? Their industry is dying.

It raises some pretty fundamental questions.

I have nothing but admiration for innovation in advertizing and creative revenue-generation online. Without it, journalism will die. But if advertorials become effectively indistinguishable from editorial, aren’t we in danger of destroying the village in order to save it?

Likewise, in order to compete in search results, a site must have links. It would great if people linked freely and often based on objective merit, but we all know that is a hit and miss affair. If native advertising provides a means to acquire paid links that don’t look like paid links, then that is what people will do.

And if their competitors are doing it, they’ll have little choice.

Seamless Integration

If you’re looking for a way to build paid links, then here is where the opportunity lies for SEOs.

Recent examples Google caught out looked heavily advertorial. They were in bulk. They would have likely been barely credible to a human reviewer as they didn’t read particularly well. Those I saw had an "auto-generated quality" to them.

The integration with editorial needs to be seamless and, if possible, the in-house editors should write the copy, or it should look like they did. Avoid generic and boilerplate approaches. The content should not be both generic and widely distributed. Such strategy is unlikely to pass Google’s inspections.

Markets will spring up, if they haven’t already, whereby publications will offer editorial native advertising, link included. It would be difficult to tell if such a link was “paid for”, and certainly not algorithmically, unless the publisher specifically labelled it “advertising feature” or something similar.

Sure, this has been going on for years, but if a lot of high level publishers embrace something called "Native Advertising" then that sounds a lot more legitimate than "someone wants to pay for a link on our site". In marketing, it's all about the spin ;)

It could be a paid restaurant review on a restaurant review site, link included. For SEO purposes, the review doesn't even need to be overtly positive and glowing, therefore a high degree of editorial integrity could be maintained. This approach would suit a lot of review sites. For example, "we'll pay you to review our product, so long as you link to it, but you can still say whatever you like about it". The publishers production cost is met, in total, and they can maintain a high degree of editorial integrity. If Jennifer Lopez is in a new movie with some "hot" scene then that movie can pay AskMen to create a top 10 sexiest moments gallery that includes their movie at #9 & then advertise that feature across the web.

A DIY site could show their readers how to build a garden wall. The products could be from a sponsor, link included. Editorial integrity could be maintained, as the DIY site need not push or recommend those products like an advertorial would, but the sponsor still gets the link. The equivalent of product placement in movies.

News items can feature product placement without necessarily endorsing them, link included - they already do this with syndicated press releases. Journalists often interview the local expert on a given topic, and this can include a link. If that news article is paid for by the link buyer, yet the link buyer doesn't have a say in editorial, then that deal will look attractive to publishers. Just a slightly different spin on "brought to you by our sponsor". Currently services like HARO & PR Leads help connect experts with journalists looking for story background. In the years to come perhaps there will be similar services where people pay the publications directly to be quoted.

I’m sure you can think of many other ideas. A lot of this isn’t new, it’s just a new, shiny badge on something that has been going on well before the web began. When it comes to SEO, the bar has been lifted on link building. Links from substandard content are less likely to pass Google’s filters, so SEOs need to think more about ways to get quality content integrated in a more seamless way. It takes more time, and it’s likely to be more costly, but this can be a good thing. It raises the bar on everyone else.

Those who don’t know the bar has been raised, or don’t put more effort in, will lose.

Low Level Of Compromise

Native Advertising is a new spin on an old practice, however it should be especially interesting to the SEO, as the SEO doesn't demand the publisher compromise editorial to a significant degree, as the publisher would have to do for pure advertorial. The SEO only requires they incorporate a link within a seamless, editorial-style piece.

If the SEO is paying for the piece to be written, that's going to look like a good deal to many publishers.

When Links Go Bad

Mar 21st
posted in

When is a link not okay? When will you get a penalty for linking to someone else? When will you get a penalty if someone links to you?

This area grows ever more complicated.

The old-hands will know this, but those newer to SEO are justified if feeling confused.

Interflora UK

The Interflora UK site was recently dropped from top position in Google, although it looks like they’ve now returned. As we’ve seen in the past, major brands typically return quickly, because if visitors don’t see a brand they expect to see, then Google looks deficient.

According to this excellent analysis by Anthony Shapley, the Interflora site was likely dropped due to an abundance of links coming from regional newspaper sites. These sites contained “Advertorial” content that looked something like this:

Whilst similar pages don’t appear to have inbound links to Interflora UK now, it’s clear from Anthony’s analysis that they did previously. In turn, sites featuring the Advertorials appear to have suffered a decrease in PageRank. If they were selling space for the purposes of flowing PageRank then that value has likely diminished.

According to SearchEngineLand:

Google has downgraded the Toolbar PageRank scores for several dozen UK operated newspapers and news sites today. It is believed the reason Google has downgraded their PageRank scores is because they were selling links on a massive scale

But What’s This?

So, are Advertorial backlinks “evil”?

It would appear so.

Then again, maybe not, if you happen to be Google. Aaron spotted an advertorial placement - sorry, “Information Feature” - last week. Google appear to be placing content too, complete with backlinks that aren’t no-followed.

When they do it, it’s okay? Or is this simply an “unfortunate oversight” on the part of one rogue tentacle of the sprawling Google octopus? Given Google’s previous stance on such issues, it’s probably the latter. But how many webmasters, especially webmasters of minor web properties, can claim “an unfortunate oversight” in their defense? And if they do, would they receive a fair hearing?

Still, Google, as an organization have done a good job of building their brand, and like most major brands, I’m sure we’ll continue to see them at the top of search result pages. It helps, of course, that if there are any real problems in terms of penalties delivered by an algorithm, or a quality rater who has temporarily forgotten who pays her wages, someone in the search quality team can talk to someone else in the search quality team and clear up any misunderstanding.

And why not? There’s got to be some advantage in being big - and owning the show - right?

What About Guest Columns?

What’s an advertorial?

If someone guest posts on a site, and links back to their site, is that an advertorial? A lot of media websites are run that way. How would an algorithm tell the difference?

But doing so is a standard marketing 101 practice from a time before search engines existed. It’s not a crime to link to another site. It’s not a crime to place self-promotional content on another site that leads back to your own. The visitor traveling across the link is the payoff.

But SEOs know about another layer of pay-off, regardless of visitor traffic.

Google may argue that it’s safest to put a “no-follow” attribute on the link, which indicates intent i.e. “I’m not doing this because of what I read in The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, honest guv!”, but that seems to be an arbitrary way of doing things given people in the SEO community know what a no-follow is, but most webmasters and publishers don’t. Most links won’t be no-followed, regardless of intent.

If Google don’t think the content, and link, is of sufficient quality, then why not just degrade it? Why does the publisher need to jump through arbitrary hoops that won’t apply to everyone, equally? Does the fact a page is labelled an “Advertorial” mean it receives special attention? If so, then won’t we simply see more “integrated” editorial “solutions” in future?

The line is rather blurry.

Best Practice

In the case of Interflora UK, it seems the link problem was largely due to scale. Rule #1 is don’t embarrass Google, and a lot of links coming in from near-identical, low-quality content is a sure-fire way to do so.

It was almost certainly a hand edit, as this practice has been going on for some time, so given the sites are crawled, and in the index, and rank well, as they have been doing for a while, then we can probably assume the algorithms had no issue with them, at least up until recently.

Perhaps a competitor raised the alarm?

Difficult to know for sure.

It’s a good marketing opportunity for Google in that they get to put many webmasters and SEOs on notice again. “Content placement” is not within the guidelines, and if you do it, they may hit you if we see you.

So many webmasters start to fret about where, exactly, the line is drawn.

Google issued a reminder the same day:

Google has said for years that selling links that pass PageRank violates our quality guidelines. We continue to reiterate that guidance periodically to help remind site owners and webmasters of that policy. Please be wary if someone approaches you and wants to pay you for links or "advertorial" pages on your site that pass PageRank. Selling links (or entire advertorial pages with embedded links) that pass PageRank violates our quality guidelines, and Google does take action on such violations.

Pretty clear. If you want to stay well within Google’s guidelines on this issue, don’t run Advertorial pages with links to the site that paid for them, and don’t be the target of same. As we speak, there will likely be hundreds of webmasters pulling down Advertorial-style campaigns. At very least, I’m sure SEOs will be disinclined to label them as such in future.

It raises an interesting issue, though. What’s to stop a competitor doing this? Running an Advertorial campaign on your behalf, reporting you, and taking you out. And if you’re a minor player, will you get a fair trial?

Dastardly competitors aside, the best way to avoid this type of penalty is to ask yourself “What Would Matt Cutts Do”? Matt's blog is the model for safe linking.

A link needs to be tightly integrated with editorial. A rule of thumb is that the editorial should be closer to balanced journalism and personal opinion and further away from PR - as in press release. The interesting thing about this case is that a lot of press releases will likely fit an Advertorial definition. This is not to say you’ll receive a ban if you're linked to from a press release, or if you carry a press release you’ll be degraded, but you probably need to be a little wary of badly "written" press releases displayed in a...cough....“systematic” way.

The other rule of thumb is “would this pass human inspection and will that human see the content as editorial”? If so, even if you don’t have a no-follow link, it should be fine. If it’s not, then most of the web isn’t okay, including many of Google’s own properties.

Those who don’t care about Google’s guidelines probably got a good case study in how well Advertorial-with-link placement can work, at least up until such time as the campaign pitches-up above-radar.

Tribes: It Depends

Mar 14th
posted in

Following my article about paywalls, a reader raised a point about “Tribes”. I’m paraphrasing the ensuing conversation we had, but I think it could be summarised as:

You’re wrong! The way to succeed on the internet is to build a tribe! Give your content away to the tribe! Grow the tribe!

An internet tribe is “an unofficial community of people who share a common interest, and usually who are loosely affiliated with each other through social media or other internet mechanisms”.

The use of the term dates back to 2003. More recently, Seth Godin wrote a book on the topic. As did Patrick Hanlon. A tribe could be characterized as a special interest group, a demographic, or a group of people interested in the same thing - plus internet.

So, is cultivating a tribe by giving everything away for free a better approach than locking information behind a paywall? If we lock some information away behind a paywall, does that mean we can’t build a tribe? BTW: I'm not suggesting Seth or Patrick assert such things, these issues came out of the conversation I had with the reader.

Well, It Depends

People don't have to build a paywall in order to be successful. Or build a tribe in order to be successful. Either approach could be totally the wrong thing to do.

If anyone found the article on paywalls confusing, then hopefully I can clarify. The article about paywalls was an exploration. We looked at the merits, and pitfalls, involved.

Paywalls, like tribes, will not work for everyone. I suspect most people would agree that there is no “One True System” when it comes to internet marketing, which is why we write about a wide range of marketing ideas. Each idea is a tool people could use, depending on their goals and circumstances, but certainly not proposed as being one-size-fits all. In any case, having a paywall does not mean one cannot build a tribe. The two approaches aren't mutually exclusive.

People may also recall The Well, the mother of all internet tribes. This tribe didn't lead to profit for owners Salon. It was eventually sold it to it's own users for a song. Salon, the parent company, has never been profitable. They have also tried various paywall models and free content models, although I think some of the free content looks very eHow: Driven by Demand Media.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at tribes and how to decide if a certain marketing approach is right for you.

Cart Before The Horse

"Cultivating a tribe" is a strategy.

Will everyone win using this strategy?

No.

Like any strategy, it should be justified by the business case. The idea behind tribes is that you form a group of people with similar interests, and then lead that group, and then, given appropriate and effective leadership, people help spread your message far and wide, grow the tribe, and eventually you will make money from them.

There is nothing wrong with this approach, and it works well for some businesses. However, like any marketing strategy, there is overhead involved. There is also an opportunity cost involved. And just like any marketing strategy, the success of the strategy should be measured in terms of return on investment. Is the cost of building, growing and maintaining a tribe lower than the return derived from it?

If not, then it fails.

How To Not Make Money From A Tribe

During the conversation I had with the reader, it was intimated that if someone can’t make money from a tribe, then it’s their own fault. After all, if someone can get a lot of people together by giving away their content, then money naturally follows, right?

The idea that profit is the natural result of building an audience resulted in the dot.com crash of 2000.

Many web companies at that time focused on building an audience first and worried about how it was all going to pay off later. Webvan, Pets.com, boo.com, and many of the rest didn’t suffer from lack of awareness, but from a lack of a sound business case and from a failure to execute.

We’ve had digital tribes, in various forms, since the beginning of the internet. Actually, they predate the internet . One early example of a digital tribe was the BBSs, a dial-in community. These tribes were replaced by internet forums and places, such as The Well.

Many internet forums don’t make a great deal of money. Many are run for fun at break-even, or a loss. Some make a lot of money. Whether they make a loss, a little money or a lot of money depends not on the existence of the tribe that surrounds them, as they all have tribes, but on the underlying business model.

Does the tribe translate into enough business activity in order to be profitable? How much is a large tribe of social-media aficionados interested in “free stuff” worth? More than a small demographic of Facebook-challenged people interested in high margin services? Creating a tribe to help target the latter group might possibly work, but there are probably better approaches to take.

Does SEOBook.com have a “tribe”? Should we always be looking to “grow the tribe”?

We don’t tend to characterize our approach in terms of tribes. At SEOBook.com, we do a lot of things to maintain a particular focus. We tend to write long, in-depth pieces on topics we hope people find interesting as opposed to chasing keyword terms. We don’t run an endless series of posts on optimizing meta tags. We don’t cover every tiny bit of search news. We focus almost exclusively on the needs of the intermediate-to-expert search professional. We could do many things to “grow the tribe”, but that would run counter to our objectives. It would dilute the offering. We could have a "free trial" but the noise it would create in our member forums would lower the value of the forums to existing community members.

We do offer some free tools available to everyone, but when it comes to the paid parts of the site we leave it up to individuals to decide if they think they're a good fit for our community. If a person has issues with the site before becoming a paid member, we doubt they would ever becoming a long-lasting community member, so our customer service to people who have not yet become customers is effectively nil. In short, we don’t want to run the hamster treadmill of managing a huge tribe when it doesn’t support the business case.

The Good Things About Tribes

Tribes can help spread the word. People tell people something, and they tell people, and the audience grows and grows.

They’re great for political groups, movements, consultants, charities, and any endeavour with a strong social focus. They tend to suit sectors where the people in that sector spend a lot of time “living digitally”.

As a marketing approach, building tribes is well-suited to the charismatic, relentless self-promoter. A lot of tribes tend to orient around such individuals.

The Problems With Tribes

Not everyone can be a leader. Not everyone has got the time to be a relentless self-promoter and the time spent undertaking such activity can present a high opportunity cost if that’s not how your target market rolls. Perhaps a relentless focus on PPC, or SEO, or another channel will pay higher dividends.

There is also an ever-growing noise level in the social media channels, but the attention level remains relatively constant. The medium is forever being squeezed. Is blogging/facebooking/tweeting all day with the aim of building a tribe really a useful thing to be doing? Only metrics can tell us that, so make sure you monitor ‘em!

To build a big tribe in any competitive space takes serious work and it takes a long time. Many people will fail using that approach. Not only are some people not cut out to lead, the numbers don’t work if everyone used this method. If everyone who led a tribe also followed hundreds of other people leading their own tribes, then there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to get anything else done.

It will not be an efficient marketing approach for many.

Getting People To Follow Is Not The Goal Of Business

I know of a company that just got bought out for a few million.

Sounds great, right. However, I know they carry a lot of debt and their business model puts them on a downward trajectory. This site has a massive “tribe”. This site is number one in their niche. People tweet, Facebook, follow them, sing their praises, they engage up, down, left, right and center. They’ve got the internet tribe thing down pat, and their tribe buys their stuff.

One problem.

The business is based on low prices. The tribe is fixated on “getting a great price”. This business is vulnerable to competitors as that tribes loyalty, that took so long to build, is based on price - which is no loyalty at all. Perhaps they achieved their exit strategy, and did what they needed to do, but growing a massive and active internet tribe didn't prevent them being swallowed by a larger competitor. The larger competitor doesn't really have a tribe, but focuses on traditional channels.

Without getting the fundamentals right, a tribe, or any other marketing strategy, is unlikely to pay off. The danger in listening to gurus is they can be fadish. There is money in evangelizing the bright, shiny new marketing idea that sounds really good.

But beware of placing the cart before the horse. Marketing is a numbers game that comes down to ROI. Does building the tribe make enough money to justify serving the tribe?

Having followers is no bad thing. Just makes sure they’re the right followers, for the right reasons, and acquiring them supports a sound business case :)

The Rise Of Paywalls

Mar 7th
posted in

“Information wants to be free” was a phrase coined by Stewart Brand, a counter-culture figure and publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog.

This was the context of the quote:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other

Brand talks about distribution cost, but not the production cost. Whatever our views on information freedom, I think everyone can agree that those who create information need to pay their bills. If creating information is how someone makes their living, then information must make an adequate return.

Information production is not free.

The distribution cost has been driven down to near zero on the internet, but it is the distributors, not content creators, who make most of the money. “Information wants to be free”, far from being an anti-corporate battle-cry, suits the business model of fat mega-corporations, like Google, who make money bundling “free” content and running advertising next to it. In this environment, the content creator can often struggle to make a satisfactory return.

So, content creators have been experimenting with models that reject the notion information must be free. One of these models involves the paywall, which we’ll examine today.

Content Disappearing Behind The Wall

More than 300 US dailies now have paywalls, and that number is growing. Big players, like the New York Times and the Financial Times, have reported increasing paid subscription numbers for their online content:

The FT reported that it has breached the 250,000 subscriber mark, having grown digital subscriptions 30% during the last year. The FT charges about $390 for an annual subscription to its website, which would indicate total digital subscription revenues of nearly $100 million if everyone was paying the full annual price. However, the actual total is almost certainly lower than that, since print subscribers pay discounted fee and not all subscriptions are annual. However, the performance is still impressive. The FT said 100,000 of those subscriptions are from corporations

Their paywall experiment appears to be paying off. However, critics are quick to point out that those newspapers enjoy an established reputation, and that lesser-known media outlets might have trouble emulating such success.

Certainly, this seems to be the case for the Rupert Murdoch owned “The Daily” which went belly-up due to poor subscription numbers:

The Daily, a boldly innovative publication – in the platform sense – is over. It’s never pleasant to see a newspaper of any form go under. However, there are lessons to be made from its birth, growth, and eventual demise that have wide implications for the content industry that are worth discussing.Here’s the raw truth: The Daily lost too much money and didn’t have a clear path to profitability, or something close to it. News Corp stated this succinctly, saying that the paper’s key problem was that it “could not find a large enough audience quickly enough to convince us the business model was sustainable in the long-term.

Even with the clout of News Corporation behind it, the Daily folded in less than two years. It was reportedly losing an estimated $30 million annually.

But was size was part of its problem? Did that paywall model fail due to high overhead and the relative inflexibility of a traditional media operation? Perhaps success involves leveraging off an existing reputation, innovation and running a tight ship?

Some smaller media start-ups have opted for the paywall approach. Well-known blogger Andrew Sullivan left the Daily Dish and went solo, offering readers a subscription based website.

Was this a big risk? Could Sullivan really make subscription content pay when the well-resourced Daily failed?

Sullivan did 333K in 24 hours.

Basically, we’ve gotten a third of a million dollars in 24 hours, with close to 12,000 paid subscribers [at last count],” Sullivan wrote today. “On average, readers paid almost $8 more than we asked for. To say we’re thrilled would obscure the depth of our gratitude and relief.

Sullivan doesn’t have the overhead of The Daily, so his break-even point is significantly lower. It looks like Sullivan may have hit on a model that works for him.

Another small media outfit, called The Magazine run by Marco Arment, started as an “IOS newstand publication for geeks”. Arment was known to his audience as he was the lead developer on Tumblr and and developer of Instapaper.

The Magazine publishes four articles every two weeks for $1.99 per month with a 7-day free trial. It started off as an app for the iPad but has since migrated to the web, but behind a paywall.

There’s room for another category between individuals and major publishers, and that’s where The Magazine sits. It’s a multi-author, truly modern digital magazine that can appeal to an audience bigger than a niche but smaller than the readership of The New York Times. This is what a modern magazine can be, not a 300 MB stack of static page images laid out manually by 100 people. The Magazine supports writers in the most basic, conventional way that, in the modern web context, actually seems least conventional and riskiest: by paying them to write. Since I’m keeping production costs low, I’m able to pay writers reasonably today, and very competitively with high-end print magazines in the future if The Magazine gets enough subscribers. A risk, but I’m confident. Here goes”

So how’s this niche publication doing?

Arment walked me through the numbers. He has 25,000 subscribers who pay $1.99 a month. Apple takes a 30 percent cut, leaving Arment about $35,000 a month.his cost of putting out the magazine is a bit over $20,000 per month. It comes out every two weeks, and each issue costs about $10,000. Roughly $4,000 goes to writers. The rest goes mostly to copy editors, illustrators, photographers and editors

Then there is Paul Carr, ex-Tech Crunch journalist who started NSFW Corporation, a web publication that has, up until recently, sat entirely behind a paywall. It’s a general interest and humor site that, by Pauls’ own admission, doesn’t need a ton of readers, just enough readers prepared to pay $3 a month for access so they can make money. He figures if he gets 30K paying subscribers, then that’s enough to break even.

Interestingly, he's announced that they are diversifying into print. He claims NSFW will be profitable by the end of the year:

They’ll curse at SEO-driven headlines and at a public unwilling to pay even a few dollars for journalism that costs many thousand times that to produce. .......Rather than mourning the loss of long-form investigative pieces, we’re combining an online subscription model with ebooks and even print to make that kind of journalism profitable again. Instead of resorting to cheap tricks to jack up page views to sell another million belly fat ads, we’re inventing sponsorship products that provide more value to sponsors as editorial quality (not quantity) increases.....

It’s probably too early to draw many firm conclusions on the paywall experiment, although it’s clear that some operators are making it work.

News is a difficult form of content to monetarize on the web. It’s ephemeral, time-sensitive and ultimately disposable. However, if you’re providing educational and consultancy content, then it should be easier. If you do publish this type of content, how much of this should you be giving away? And if you do, what return are you getting back? Do you have a way to measure it?

The answers will be different for everyone, but they are interesting questions to consider. Many publishers are making paywalls work. And these people are making money from web content without exclusively pandering to flaky search engines in the hope some traffic may come their way.

The free content in exchange for free traffic “deal” is simply no longer worthwhile for many publishers.

Paywalls Are Hard

Paywalls are difficult to get right.

When “The Magazine” launched, it placed too much content behind the paywall, in the form of an app, meaning people couldn’t link to it. This meant the conversation was happening elsewhere.

I hastily built a basic site while I was waiting for the app to be approved. I only needed it to do two things: send people to the App Store, and show something at the sharing URLs for each article. Since The Magazine had no ads, and people could only subscribe in the app, I figured there was no reason to show full article text on the site — it could only lose money and dilute the value of subscribing. That was the biggest mistake I’ve made with The Magazine to date

The Magazine is now offering one free article view per month. The casual reader will still be able to assess the value and conversation and interaction can still happen, whilst most of the valuable content sits behind a paywall, helping ensure content creators paid.

Taking a different approach, The Times of London erected a “Berlin Wall”, locking content inside a fortress. How did that work out?

Not so well.

While the Times once had 10m monthly unique visitors, figures in September show that it has only managed to attract 100,000 digital-only subscribers, although print subscribers are able to access the site as well. As a result, Murdoch was recently forced to capitulate and allow Google and other search engines partial access to his content

When it comes to paywalls, mixed models appear to work best. Some content needs to appear where everyone can see it. Some content needs to appear in search engines and social media. The question is how much, and via what channel?

Some sites use a free-on-the-web model, whilst charging for mobile access. Other’s use a freemium model where some content is free in order to entice people to pay for premium content. One of the more successful models, of late, has been a metered approach.

The New York Times allows you to view five free pages if you come via a search engine because they get some referral revenue from the search sites. If you come to the site via Facebook, Twitter, blogs or other social media it does not count towards your monthly allowance

People don’t like to be forced into paying for content, but don't seem to mind paying once the value has been demonstrated. One of the most successful apps in the Apple store, Angry Birds, enticed people to pay by giving the basic game away. Once they could see the value, people were more willing to pay.

Fred Wilson labels this “ex post facto monetization” — “you get paid after the fact, not before.” Under this strategy, you let people receive the value of your product first, then pay later — because they want to. Those who do sign up willingly are likely to be long-term, loyal customers. Those who never sign up probably haven’t discovered enough personal value and would have unsubscribed after a month even if they had initially been forced to subscribe

Paywalls can also be difficult to get right on a technical level. Some paywalls are porous in that the content can be seen so long as you know enough to jump through a few digital hoops:

When we launched our digital subscription plan we knew there were loopholes to access our content beyond the allotted number of articles each month. We have made some adjustments and will continue to make adjustments to optimize the gateway by implementing technical security solutions to prohibit abuse and protect the value of our content

However, even if some content does leak - and let’s face it, anything on the net can leak as a cut n’ paste is only a few keystrokes away - at least an expectation of payment is being established. The message is that this content has a value attached to it.

Another way of approaching it could be to make content available in formats that are more difficult to crawl and replicate, such as streaming video, or Kindle books. Here’s a guide on how to self-publish on the Kindle.

Think about different ways to make it difficult for scrapers to extract all your value easily.

Paywalls Are Strategic

Paywalls are not just a sign-up form and a payment gateway. Paywalls are also a publishing strategy.

How much are you prepared to give away for free? How does giving away this content pay off?

A consultant may publish far and wide for free. The pay-off is more consulting gigs. The consultancy “content” sits behind a paywall in that you have to pay for that service. Not many SEO consultants give their detailed analysis away for free. The content we see in the public domain on SEO is a tiny fraction of the information held by the professionals in our niche, and that information may want to be free, but the owners, wisely, hold onto most of it, else they wouldn't eat.

Be wary about giving away your labour in exchange for "awareness". Here's a story about how The Atlantic tried to get a journalist to work for nothing.

From the Atlantic:

Thanks for responding. Maybe by the end of the week? 1,200 words? We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month. I understand if that’s not a workable arrangement for you, I just wanted to see if you were interested.

Thanks so much again for your time. A great piece!

From me:

Thanks Olga:

I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children.....

Such arrangements suit the publisher, of course, but all the risk sits with the content creator. Sometimes, those deals can work if they lead to payment in some other form, but ensure you have a means to track the pay-off.

Another way of thinking about a paywall is a switch of channel. We’re seeing the rise and rise of mobile computing and, as it turns out, mobile consumers are much more willing to pay for content than people who browse the web:

The upshot: paid content, it seems, is alive and well, but some media categories are doing a lot better than others.Taking just the use of paid content on tablets in Q4 2011, Nielsen found that in the U.S., a majority of tablet owners have already paid for downloaded music, books and movies, with 62 percent, 58 percent and 51 percent respectively saying they have already made such purchases

Could your content be better off pitched to a mobile audience? Made into an app? Published and promoted as a Kindle book?

The Hamster Wheel

This is not to say leaving content out in the open can’t pay the bills. Perhaps you don't feel a paywall is right for you, but you're growing tired of running faster just to stay in the same place.

Brian Lam used to be the editor of Gizmodo, Gawker media’s gadget blog. Gizmodo was run on a model familiar to search marketers where you first find a keyword stream then capture that stream by writing keyword-driven articles.

He likens this approach to a hamster on a wheel as he relentlessly churned out copy in order to drive more and more traffic.

It led to burn-out.

He loved the ocean, but his frantic digital existence meant his surfboard was gathering cobwebs. “I came to hate the Web, hated chasing the next post or rewriting other people’s posts just for the traffic,” he told me. “People shouldn’t live like robots.

The problem with ad-supported media models, such as Adsense, is that they depend on scale. With advertising rates decreasing year by year as the market gets more and more fractured, content production increases just to keep pace.

Lam went in the opposite direction.

His new gadget site only posts 12 times a month, but goes deep. The majority of his income comes from Amazon’s affiliate program. He achieves a 10-20% click-thru rate.

Mr. Lam’s revenue is low, about $50,000 a month, but it’s doubling every quarter, enough to pay his freelancers, invest in the site and keep him in surfboards. And now he actually has time to ride them. In that sense, Mr. Lam is living out that initial dream of the Web: working from home, working with friends, making something that saves others time and money.....The clean, simple interface, without the clutter of news, is a tiny business; it has fewer than 350,000 unique visitors a month at a time when ad buyers are not much interested in anything less than 20 million.But The Wirecutter is not really in the ad business. The vast majority of its revenue comes from fees paid by affiliates, mostly Amazon, for referrals to their sites. As advertising rates continue to tumble, affiliate fees could end up underwriting more and more media businesses“

Is running on a search-driven hamster wheel, churning out more and more keyword content the most worthwhile use of your time? Lam is making more money by feeding the beast less in terms of quantity and going deep on quality.

Loss Leader For The Search Engines

But, hang on. This is an SEO site, isn’t it? Aren’t we all about getting content into the search engines and ranking well?

Of course.

SEO is still a great marketing channel, however this doesn’t mean to say everything we publish must appear in search engines. I hope this article prompts you to consider just how much you’re giving away compared to how much benefit you’re getting in return.

It all comes down to an ROI calculation. Does it cost me less to publish page X than I get in return? If you can publish pages cheaply enough, and if the traffic is worth enough, then great. If your publishing costs exceeds your return, then there are other models worth considering.

This article is mainly concerned with deep, researched, unique content that doesn’t have a trivial production cost attached to it. If the search engines don’t deliver enough value to make deep content creation worthwhile, then publishers must look beyond the “free” web model many have been using up until now in order to be sustainable.

Don’t let distributors suck out all your value so only they can grow fat. A paywall is more than a physical thing, it’s a strategy. If you publish a lot of valuable information that isn’t getting a reasonable return, then think about ways bundle that information into product form and ask yourself if you should keep it out of the search engines. Decide on your loss-leader content and create a sales funnel to ensure there is a payday at the end. The existence of content farms showed deep, free content often doesn’t pay. The way they made their content pay was to make it dirt cheap to produce and so useless that the advertising became the most relevant content on the page.

Content that relies heavily on search engine traffic is a high risk strategy. Some may recall a Mac site, called Cult Of Mac, that got hit by Panda. They were big enough, and connected enough, to have Google reinstate them, but the first comment in this thread tells it like it is:

It's great news that Google reinstated Cult of Mac although that will not happen to other smaller genuine blogs and websites..

True, that.

It’s not enough to “publish quality content”. A lot of quality content gets hammered and tossed out of the search engines each day. And even if it stays listed, it may not make a return. There are no guarantees. Instead, build a brand and an audience. And then sell that audience something they can’t get for free.

Content may want to be free, but free doesn’t pay. For many publishers, the search engines aren’t giving enough back so be wary about how much you hand over to them.

How To Prevent Content Value Gouging

Mar 7th
posted in

What are the incentives to publish high-value content to the web?

Search engines, like Google, say they want to index quality content, but provide little incentive to create and publish it. The reality is that the publishing environment is risky, relatively poorly paid in most instances, and is constantly being undermined.

The Pact

There is little point publishing web content if the cost of publishing outweighs any profit that can be derived from it.

Many publishers, who have search engines in mind, work on an assumption that if they provide content to everyone, including Google, for free, then Google should provide traffic in return. It’s not an official deal, of course. It’s unspoken.

Rightly or wrongly, that’s the “deal” as many webmasters perceive it.

What Actually Happens

Search engines take your information and, if your information is judged sufficiently worthy that day, as the result of an ever-changing, obscure digital editorial mechanism known only to themselves, they will rank you highly, and you’ll receive traffic in return for your efforts.

That may all change tomorrow, of course.

What might also happen is that they could grab your information, amalgamate it, rank you further down the page, and use your information to keep visitors on their own properties.

Look at the case of Trip Advisor. Trip Advisor, frustrated with Google’s use of its travel and review data, filed a competition complaint against Google in 2012.

The company said: "We hope that the commission takes prompt corrective action to ensure a healthy and competitive online environment that will foster innovation across the internet."

The commission has been investigating more than a dozen complaints against Google from rivals, including Microsoft, since November 2010, looking at claims that it discriminates against other services in its search results and manipulates them to promote its own products.

TripAdvisor's hotel and restaurants review site competes with Google Places, which provides reviews and listings of local businesses."We continue to see them putting Google Places results higher in the search results – higher on the page than other natural search results," said Adam Medros, TripAdvisor's vice president for product, in February. "What we are constantly vigilant about is that Google treats relevant content fairly."

Similarly, newspapers have taken aim at Google and other search engines for aggregating their content, and deriving value from that aggregation, but the newspapers claim they aren’t making enough to cover the cost of producing that content in the first place:

In 2009 Rupert Murdoch called Google and other search engines “content kleptomaniacs”. Now cash-strapped newspapers want to put legal pressure on what they see as parasitical news aggregators.”

Of course, it’s not entirely the fault of search engines that newspapers are in decline. Their own aggregation model - bundling news, sport, lifestyle, classifieds topics - into one “place” has been surpassed.

Search engines often change their stance without warning, or can be cryptic about their intentions, often to the determent of content creators. For example, Google has stated they see ads as helpful, useful and informative:

In his argument, Cutts said, “We actually think our ads can be as helpful as the search results in some cases. And no, that’s not a new attitude.”

And again:

we firmly believe that ads can provide useful information

And again:

In entering the advertising market, Google tested our belief that highly relevant advertising can be as useful as search results or other forms of content

However, business models built around the ads as content idea, such as Suite101.com, got hammered. Google could argue these sites went too far, and that they are asserting editorial control, and that may be true, but such cases highlight the flaky and precarious nature of the search ecosystem as far as publishers are concerned. One day, what you're doing is seemingly "good", the next day it is "evil". Punishment is swift and without trial.

Thom Yorke sums it up well:

In the days before we meet, he has been watching a box set of Adam Curtis's BBC series, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, about the implications of our digitised future, so the arguments are fresh in his head. "We were so into the net around the time of Kid A," he says. "Really thought it might be an amazing way of connecting and communicating. And then very quickly we started having meetings where people started talking about what we did as 'content'. They would show us letters from big media companies offering us millions in some mobile phone deal or whatever it was, and they would say all they need is some content. I was like, what is this 'content' which you describe? Just a filling of time and space with stuff, emotion, so you can sell it?"

Having thought they were subverting the corporate music industry with In Rainbows, he now fears they were inadvertently playing into the hands of Apple and Google and the rest. "They have to keep commodifying things to keep the share price up, but in doing so they have made all content, including music and newspapers, worthless, in order to make their billions. And this is what we want? I still think it will be undermined in some way. It doesn't make sense to me. Anyway, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. The commodification of human relationships through social networks. Amazing!

There is no question the value of content is being deprecated by big aggregation companies. The overhead of creating well-researched, thoughtful content is the same whether search engines value it or not. And if they do value it, a lot of the value of that content has shifted to the networks, distributors and aggregators and away from the creators.

Facebook’s value is based entirely on the network itself. Almost all of Google’s value is based on scraping and aggregating free content and placing advertising next to it. Little of this value gets distributed back to the creator, unless they take further, deliberate steps to try and capture some back.

In such a precarious environment, what incentive does the publisher have to invest and publish to the “free” web?

Content Deals

Google lives or dies on the relevancy of the information they provide to visitors. Without a steady supply of “free” information from third parties, they don’t have a business.

Of course, this information isn’t free to create. So if search engines do not provide you profitable traffic, then why allow search engines to crawl your pages? They cost you money in terms of bandwidth and may extract, and then re-purpose, the value you created to suit their own objectives.

Google has done content-related deals in the past. They did one in France in February whereby Google agreed to help publishers develop their digital units:

Under the deal, Google agreed to set up a fund, worth 60 million euroes, or $80 million, over three years, to help publishers develop their digital units. The two sides also pledged to deepen business ties, using Google’s online tools, in an effort to generate more online revenue for the publishers, who have struggled to counteract dwindling print revenue.

This seems to fit with Google’s algorithmic emphasis on major web properties, seemingly as a means to sift the "noise in the channel". Such positioning favors big, established content providers.

It may have also been a forced move as Google would have wanted to avoid a protracted battle with European regulators. Whatever the case, Google doesn’t do content deals with small publishers and it could be said they are increasingly marginalizing them due to algorithm shifts that appear to favor larger web publishers over small players.

Don't Be Evil To Whom?

Google’s infamous catch-phrase is “Don’t Be Evil”. In the documentary Inside Google", Eric Schmidt initially thought the phrase was a joke. Soon after, he realized they took it seriously.

The problem with such a phrase is that it implies Google is a benevolent moral actor that cares about......what? You - the webmaster?

Sure.

“Don’t Be Evil” is typically used by Google in reference to users, not webmasters. In practice, it’s not even a question of morality, it’s a question of who to favor. Someone is going to lose, and if you’re a small webmaster with little clout, it’s likely to be you.

For example, Google appear to be kicking a lot of people out of Adsense, and as many webmasters are reporting, Google often act as judge, jury and executioner, without recourse. That’s a very strange way of treating business “partners”, unless partnership has some new definition of which I'm unaware.

It's getting pretty poor when their own previously supportive ex-employees switch to damning their behavior:

But I think Google as an organization has moved on; they're focussed now on market position, not making the world better. Which makes me sad. Google is too powerful, too arrogant, too entrenched to be worth our love. Let them defend themselves, I'd rather devote my emotional energy to the upstarts and startups. They deserve our passion.

Some may call such behavior a long way from “good” on the “good” vs “evil” spectrum.

How To Protect Value

Bottom line: if your business model involves creating valuable content, you’re going to need a strategy to protect it and claw value back from aggregators and networks in order for a content model to be sustainable.

Some argue that if you don’t like Google, then block them using robots.txt. This is one option, but there’s no doubt Google still provides some value - it’s just a matter of deciding where to draw the line on how much value to give away.

What Google offers is potential visitor attention. We need to acquire and hold enough visitor attention before we switch the visitors to desired action. An obvious way to do this, of course, is to provide free, attention grabbing content that offers some value, then lock the high value content away behind a paywall. Be careful about page length. As HubPages CEO Paul Edmonds points out:

Longer, richer pages are more expensive to create, but our data shows that as the quality of a page increases, its effective revenue decreases. There will have to be a pretty significant shift in traffic to higher quality pages to make them financially viable to create"

You should also consider giving the search engines summaries or the first section of an article, but block them from the rest.

Even if you decide to block search engines from indexing your content they still might pay others to re-purpose it:

I know a little bit about this because in January I was invited to a meeting at the A.P.’s headquarters with about two dozen other publishers, most of them from the print world, to discuss the formation of the consortium. TechCrunch has not joined at this time. Ironically, neither has the A.P., which has apparently decided to go its own way and fight the encroachments of the Web more aggressively (although, to my knowledge, it still uses Attributor’s technology). But at that meeting, which was organized by Attributor, a couple slides were shown that really brought home the point to everyone in the room. One showed a series of bar graphs estimating how much ad revenues splogs were making simply from the feeds of everyone in the room. (Note that this was just for sites taking extensive copies of articles, not simply quoting). The numbers ranged from $13 million (assuming a $.25 effective CPM) to $51 million (assuming a $1.00 eCPM)

You still end up facing the cost of policing "content re-purposing" - just one of the many costs publishers face when publishing on the web, and just one more area where the network is sucking out value.

Use multiple channels so you’re not reliant on one traffic provider. You might segment your approach by providing some value to one channel, and some value to another, but not all of it to both. This is not to say models entirely reliant on Google won’t work, but if you do rely on a constant supply of new visitors via Google, and if you don’t have the luxury of having sufficient brand reputation, then consider running multiple sites that use different optimization strategies so that the inevitable algorithm changes won’t take you out entirely. It’s a mistake to think Google cares deeply about your business.

Treat every new visitor as gold. Look for ways to lock visitors in so you aren’t reliant on Google in future for a constant stream of new traffic. Encourage bookmarking, email sign-ups, memberships, rewards - whatever it takes to keep them. Encourage people to talk about you across other media, such as social media. Look for ways to turn visitors into broadcasters.

Adopt a business model that leverages off your content. Many consultants write business books. They make some money from the books, but the books mainly serve as advertisements for their services or speaking engagements. Similarly, would you be better creating a book and publishing it on Amazon than publishing too much content to the web?

Business models focused on getting Google traffic and then monetarizing that attention using advertising only works if the advertising revenue covers production cost. Some sites make a lot of money this way, but big money content sites are in the minority. Given the low return of a lot of web advertising, other webmasters opt for cheap content production. But cheap content isn’t likely to get the attention required these days, unless you happen to be Wikipedia.

Perhaps a better approach for those starting out is to focus on building brand / engagement / awarenesss / publicity / non-search distribution. As Aaron points out:

...the sorts of things that PR folks & brand managers focus on. The reason being is that if you have those things...

  • the incremental distribution helps subsidize the content creation & marketing costs
  • many of the links happen automatically (such that you don't need to spend as much on links & if/when you massage some other stuff in, it is mixed against a broader base of stuff)
  • that incremental distribution provides leverage in terms of upstream product suppliers (eg: pricing leverage) or who you are able to partner with & how (think about Mint.com co-marketing with someone or the WhiteHouse doing a presentation with CreditCards.com ... in addition to celebrity stuff & such ... or think of all the ways Amazon can sell things: rentals, digital, physical, discounts via sites like Woot, higher margin high fashion on sites like Zappos, etc etc etc)
  • as Google folds usage data & new signals in, you win
  • as Google tracks users more aggressively (Android + Chrome + Kansas City ISP), you win
  • if/when/as Google eventually puts some weight on social you win
  • people are more likely to buy since they already know/trust you
  • if anyone in your industry has a mobile app that is widely used & you are the lead site in the category you could either buy them out or be that app maker to gain further distribution
  • Google engineers are less likely to curb you knowing that you have an audience of rabid fans & they are more likely to consider your view if you can mobilize that audience against "unjust editorial actions"

A lot of the most valuable content on this site is locked-up. We’d love to open this content up, but there is currently no model that sufficiently rewards publishers for doing so. This is the case across the web, and it's the reason the most valuable content is not in Google.

It’s not in Google because Google, and the other search engines, don’t pay.

Fair? Unfair? Is there a better way? How can content providers - particularly newcomers - grow and prosper in such an environment?






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