I think the search engine optimization industry has made a lot of progress in the last few years. It’s a little less common to get cold calls from SEOs that guarantee #1 rankings but won’t tell you how they try to do it. And if a large SEO company wants to try something high-risk with a client, they’re more likely to explain the potential risks to that client first. There are still issues, of course, but I was looking over a list of 20+ blackhat SEO companies that I compiled back in 2002. The majority either went out of business or have transformed into white-hat SEO companies.
I still think there are 4 big scams in the SEO industry that undermine the reputation of the industry.
Selling Fake SEO services
Many leading registrars and hosting companies scam their customers selling SEO services with no real value, like monthly search engine submission. Some web designers were asked by clients if they provided SEO services said yes, then marked up their prices without offering any real value beyond valid code. Worse yet, now Microsoft (which owns a leading search engine) is also offering an SEO service of limited value.
Sure you can rank for uncompetitive terms with just a submission, but you need link building if you want to rank for anything competitive.
Bait & Switch Pricing
The Sam's Club business website offers SEO services for as little as $50 a month. Once you request more information their starting program starts at $500 a month, with a 6 month minimum, and a $199 deposit.
People Calling SEO Trash for Buzz, Self Promotion, & Differentiation
Some customers turn to SEO because they view it as free traffic. Their business model are not unique, are not remarkable, and they can not compete without SEO, and yet they want to bolt on SEO as their entire marketing strategy for a few hundred dollars.
When this type of customer buys from a scammer that is because they lowballed their offer so much that only scammers would be willing to work for those prices.
What’s among the biggest contributor to blight on MySpace? The leagues of sock puppet profiles and automated friend requests that jamb your inbox. Google — the company that stands on a soap box attacking companies for SPAMMING their index to manipulate search results — is selling keyword advertising for software designed to create fake profiles and send SPAM friend request.
Yahoo! shares were trading in the $19 range before Microsoft offered to buy the company for $31 a share. People inside of Yahoo! talked to the NYT and WSJ stating that Monday they will reject the offer and request at least $40 a share. Unless Yahoo! accepts this deal their shares will likely fall, which will lead to lawsuits from shareholders. The one thing that could help Yahoo! unlock greater short term value would be partnering with Google on search. But if they did that, it would suck for SEOs and web publishers...90% of the search market would be controlled by Google, which would give Google even more leverage over content providers.
For Yahoo! to give Google control of search they would need to curb their ad network, which not only has syndicated search and ad partners, but also powers a lot of arbitrage and direct navigation domain traffic. Yahoo!, being far more desperate for traffic and revenues, likely pays partners a bigger cut than Google does. Yahoo! being in play cuts the value of many thin arbitrage models (like Marchex) because
Yahoo! going to Microsoft would make Microsoft /Yahoo a more efficient marketplace and make it hard to arbitrage one through the other
Yahoo! Search being outsourced to Google would allow Google to pay publishing partners a smaller piece of the pie and have a tighter control of the ad market. Google recently killed Ask's sub-syndication deal.
Marchex posts Q4 results on the 14th. If they underperform they may have to start layoffs, cut their dividend, or start selling off some of their domain portfolio. Assuming names were sold one at a time, in a BuyDomains.com like format, more clean domains on the market would present a great opportunity for SEOs and smaller independent publishers, but they may sell off names in large blocks.
A side shoot of this Yahoo! in play even is a great blog post by Henry Blodget on how Microsoft's forward vision on ad supported software is failing to realize the full potential of subscription based software:
Corporations are shifting to cloud-computing platforms--Software as a Service vendors like Salesforce.com and NetSuite, Google Apps, etc--but, for the most part, they are not shifting to "free software supported by advertising." On the contrary, they continue to pay fat, per-employee license fees. Even some corporations running Google Apps pay license fees. The fees are lower than the per-seat costs charged by Microsoft, but they're in the same same ballpark (according to the NYT, big companies pay about $75 per Office seat per year vs. $50 for Google Apps).
In the current web 2.0 market, far too many start ups are focused on being ad supported rather than adding enough value to be able to sell a service. The easiest way to protect yourself from Google is to create something worth paying for.
I run a good number of websites in a variety of verticals. One of my sites that does exceptionally well in the search engines monetizes poorly with contextual ads and does not yet have the scale to sell direct ads, so I tried integrating affiliate ads on it.
When I initially applied for CJ with this site, the advertiser I wanted to partner with rejected my site (I am guessing because there was a new account associated with that site). The traffic quality and relevancy are as high as you can get though. About 3 months later that same advertiser contacted me asking me to join their affiliate program with my search-marketing.info website, which is wildly off topic. I joined the affiliate program and also added my relevant site to the account about two weeks ago. I integrated the offer and waited for the money to roll in. But did it?
This particular affiliate program was a lead generation program, which I figured had a delay in reporting while the leads were classified and approved. This site is a high traffic site in a big money vertical. The advertiser's ad was integrated similarly to how it is integrated on other sites still in their program today, and their ad was seen by about 100,000 people.
I logged in today and still no conversion. Odd. Weeks for an approval? Hmmmm.
I looked at my invalid clicks report and it said my offer from this advertiser was disapproved. I was not told why, and was not even informed of this disapproval (from the advertiser who approached me) until after I searched out the information.
Meanwhile that same company is paying search engines thousands of dollars to buy similar traffic to the stream they rejected from me. I know someone in upper management in the marketing department at that advertiser, so I will ping them to see what is up with their affiliate manager, but how many publishers get scammed like this every day? Sleazy workflow their CJ.
The value add for publishers going through an affiliate network (vs going direct) are
having fewer accounts
independent reporting (for if you don't trust the advertiser)
the offer data on top performing offers
But on the down side,
many other marketers are looking over the same offers you are
some networks (like CJ) require tracking images or other footprints that identify your site as an affiliate site to search engines (and search engines do have algorithms to detect and demote certain types of affiliate sites)
communications channels are generally worthless when you add a bulky affiliate network to the mix
I have had a number of affiliate networks come to me asking me to join them, often offering reduced rates, but I still don't see their value add, especially after this experience.
As large media sites open up to user generated content they are going to keep losing brand and value to niche channels owned and operated by people who are so passionate about their subject that their brands have purpose and lasting value.
When markets are healthy and growing that growth can hide major issues, but when the markets swing toward a loss the winners are separated from the losers. As the markets consolidate and the thin arbitrage opportunities fall away the market leaders own a much bigger piece of the market.
The above chart could just as easily be a finance chart comparing Google's 5 year performance to Yahoo's, or any other industry undergoing heavy consolidation. Google's brand is search. Yahoo's brand is ???
Many people view you how you view yourself and label you with the labels you attach to yourself. Something to consider when creating a new business in a saturated field.
If you are not considered the #1 site in your class / vertical then you need to change your brand, find ways to add value (like editorial content, unique data formats, syndication, or open APIs), build an organic advantage (using a strong domain name, a great site design, and through public relations) or do something else to change the rules.
John Donahoe will set out a plan to reward the company's best sellers with sales incentives and priority ranking in search results for auction items.
"Sellers that describe items accurately, ship on time, and ship at a fair price will enjoy preferential pricing and discounts on eBay," [John] Donahoe said in prepared remarks. "We're serious about making eBay easier and safer to shop."
On February 20 the changes will start taking place. Depending on how serious eBay is about this change, many eBay based businesses may die. But they also plan on lowering initial listing fees and trying to get more commission when items sell, which could lead to more junk listings as the opportunity cost is lower. If you are one of a few legit sellers in a market saturated with scams perhaps this helps increase margins, but eBay will have a hard time bring back buyers who got scammed in the past or sellers who were sick of years of rate increases.
It is remarkable that eBay has been around over a decade and are just finally getting around to making these kinds of changes. If they didn't have a near monopoly there is no way they could have waited this long.
I understand why some people sell on eBay, but for anyone who has been doing it for a long time I wonder why they don't create a site and sell direct. Being stuck in someone else's network where quality scores can make you irrelevant is a risky way to make a living.
Lots of people are solving common problems and giving publishers a wide array of choices that keep driving costs down. Just about everything is getting cheaper and easier - except marketing. Audiences fragment, people ignore advertising, and everyone is so busy that they have no time for you.
Public relations and search marketing are the new advertising because unlike most ads they are not ignored. They are seen as editorial content even if it is bought and sold on a per article basis or per ranking basis. And so you have smart business deals where you slap Lance Armstrong's name on a bunch of user generated content. Generate the PR buzz and watch the ad dollars roll in:
The Lance Armstrong Foundation, which spends about $40 million a year on health programs and cancer research, is teaming up with Web-site operator Demand Media Inc. to launch a health-and-wellness Web site funded by advertising. The site, called "livestrong.com," is expected to go live this year.
How does the Google view of spam and editing out non-editorial link buys stand up in a world where companies like Demand Media recycle the web and cross link it all, while companies like Pay Per Clip offer:
WEB MEDIA placements can range from $450 for a brief appearance in an online article, to $2,750 for a full feature, including a link to your web site, in a top tier web publication.
Google needs to realize that public relations, promotions, and advertising are a normal part of the business process. After all, ads only account for 99% of their revenue. But Google engineers can dictate arbitrary mandates based on a broken understanding of the business world because Google's founders thought big.
Value your time properly and think big. You can not invest too much in learning, clean organic looking marketing (like domain names, site design, and public relations), or brand building.
Mr. Murdoch made his latest comments at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in answering a question. "We are going to greatly expand and improve the free part of The Wall Street Journal online, but there will still be a strong offering" for subscribers, he said. "The really special things will still be a subscription service, and, sorry to tell you, probably more expensive."
The Wall Street Journal has enough trust, connections, and signifigance to keep charging for their best stuff.
I'm sure there could be blackmailers out there. We absolutely know that every single day, people try to game our system. Users are involved in illegal or inappropriate activities all the time. They try to set up fake accounts to promote a story. The thing is, we make changes to our algorithm on a regular basis. We plan for that.
Notice how he put illegal and inappropriate right next to each other, as to equate them. This comes from the same company that published this:
We had to decide whether to remove stories containing a single code based on a cease and desist declaration. We had to make a call, and in our desire to avoid a scenario where Digg would be interrupted or shut down, we decided to comply and remove the stories with the code.
But now, after seeing hundreds of stories and reading thousands of comments, you’ve made it clear. You’d rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you, and effective immediately we won’t delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be.
If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying.
Why is the Yahoo! Directory Considered a Legitimate Link Buy?
In addition to what Jim said, I also believe the following play a role:
They predate Google.
Google needs some sort of baseline.
The directory business model is horrifically inefficient and poses no risk to Google's market dominence. (Yahoo! demoted it in favor of Yahoo! Answers. Even the Google Directory, a DMOZ clone, has a higher PageRank than the Yahoo! Directory does.)
Few other sites are comparable to the Yahoo! Directory (especially after the Google directory purge of 2007), so it is not a technique that can't be easily and profitably be replicated like paying for reviews.
The entire Business.com directory of over 65,000 categories is managed by 6 editors (source). How could they possibly review stuff as well as you or I do? They can't. But if we all do our business in a direct to direct exchange fashion the central networks and search engines do not get a cut of the action.
Why Google is Different than Digg
Unlike Digg users looking to waste time, searchers have real targeted intent and real value. In response to Michael Gray's post Danny Sullivan said:
But if he wants to stand up to Google, take the lead and block him from crawling his site -- and encourage others to do the same. ... No one has a right to Google traffic. Follow the rules, as stupid as they are, if you want it. If don't like the rules, sure, complain about them -- but don't argue they're robbing you of anything that is supposedly "yours."
They change the guidelines on an as needed basis (use nofollow or else), apply them unevenly (why is TLA penalized when TextLinkBrokers still ranks?), and if they don't like you they can penalize other businesses associated with you.
Recently Google has been more than fair to me, but if they want to use the language they are using to try to control others, they need to clean up their ad network. Just because an ad has a high CPC and gets a high CTR does not mean that it is not immoral or illegal. Plenty of people commit crime.