Social Spam Required by Bing & Google

Jun 29th

If the social sites were isolated I would comfortably ignore them as a waste of time. Unfortunately, search engines are convinced there is signal to be had on social networks (in spite of how easy they are to game with promotions).

If I wasn't super busy I would run one such promotion to prove my point, but I am already drowning in email.

Bing + Facebook

Bing is pushing Facebook integration everywhere. TV ads, on the search results, etc.

"Open" Cultural Revolution

Shortly after gutting RSS & making authentication harder (to lock down their "open" platform) Twitter announced they were going to test in-stream ads & turned on sending out automated email spam.

Awesome.

How valuable is that email? How about "not at all" for $500 Alex?

I think Fantomaster is brilliant, but I would much rather read one of his blog posts that dozens or hundreds of Tweets. Sure knowing that 9,000 might have saw a message can be comforting, but 1 blog post will get you way more views (and with far deeper context & meaning).

How to Test the Value of Social Media

Want to see big numbers get small quickly? Try charging anything...as little as $1 & you will quickly see that social media is mostly garbage. Alternatively, try giving away $5 or paying for the in-stream ads that directly manipulate relevancy & once again you will see how worthless social media is as a signal...something that anyone can quickly buy.

Even scientists (who typically pursue the truth even if it is uncomfortable) are considering investing in manipulating their online reputation:

Online reputation is important to most researchers, and about 10% of respondents to our survey complained that they or their work have been misrepresented on the Internet. The web has a long memory, and rumours, lies and bad information can spiral out of control to be remembered by posterity.

Implementation Tips

For a lot of businesses the social media stuff will be nothing but blood & tears. A resource drain that money, time & hope gets poured into with nothing coming out the other end.

That said, I don't think ignoring it is a wise decision at this point. The best tip I have for most people is to try to set up automated systems that help your social signal grow automatically. That can mean onsite integration & perhaps a small token amount of advertising. Beyond that it is probably only participating as much as you enjoy it. And if you are more of a huckster/PR type, pay attention to how folks like Jason Calacanis leverage these channels.

The second best tip would be measure it with stats that actually matter. Revenue and profit are important. Time spent tracking the number of retweets is probably better spent building more content or improving your business in other ways. If you have something that works the rabbit hole goes deep, but if it isn't working then it is likely better spending your time being a bigger fish in a smaller pond.

Inspired by Barry's implementation, we recently added the social buttons to the left rail of the site. That is probably one of the best types of integration you can do, because it is out of the way for those who don't know what it is and/or want to ignore it, but it stays right in the same spot (always visible) for anyone who is interested in those types of buttons.

What Makes the Web Great (for Small Businesses)

Two things that make the web great are the ability to fail fast (and cheaply) & the ability to focus deeply. If social media increases the operating cost (being yet another hoop you have to jump through) & robs valuable attention that could go into your website then it is 0-for-2.

Sure there will be some edge case successes (like luxury brands maintaining their positions), but success from newer & smaller players will be uncommon exceptions (often operating outside the terms of service).

Google Leveraging Search to Push Social Junk

Google is pushing hard on identity to try to make search more social, with authorship markup & author highlighting within the search results.

It remains to be seen if an author will be able to carry his or her trust with them to their next gig, but if they can then that would make the media ecosystem more fluid & pull some amount of power away from traditional publishers. Some publishers are suggesting putting their book content online as HTML pages...well if they are doing that then why doesn't the author just install Wordpress and keep more of the value chain themselves (like J.K. Rowling just did)?

Google launched their Google+ social project & their +1 votes increase organic CTR (but highlighting that trend with "analytics" is almost like it is out of "Lying with Numbers" as one would expect a higher CTR since those who "vote" for you are more likely to be fans, who tend to be repeat visitors to your site ... which is exactly why we get more search traffic from Google for "seo book" than we do for "seo").

Google emailed AdWords advertisers encouraging them to mark up their pages with +1 & inside the AdSense interface Google also offers +1 integration tips:

The AdWords help files state clearly that +1 *is* a search relevancy signal:

+1's (whatever their source -- organic search, ads, or +1 buttons on publisher sites) is a signal that affects organic search ranking, but +1's do not change quality scores for ads and ad ranking.

Like any of the brand-related signals Google has been leaning into for the past couple years, the +1 button will favor big brands.

The impact & effect is so obvious that Google's help docs contain the following question: "Will the +1 button make it harder for my small business to compete with larger companies?"

Their answer to that question is generally "no" but that they would even ask themselves that question is fallacious Orwellian duplicity.

Would you trust the local plumber to work on your house if he was posting "exciting viral content" online about how some projects went astray? Now every plumber needs to become a marketing expert to not get driven off the web by Roto-Rooter & other chain-styled companies that can collect +1 signals from all their employees & some of their customers across the country or around the world.

Google knows they are tilting the search game toward those who have money. They even flaunt it in their display ads!

Google claimed that facial recognition was evil so that they could make Facebook look bad, but if you listen to Google for long enough you will see that they claim the opposite of their recent claims whenever it is convenient:

Google itself explains that not allowing its device maker partners to ship Skyhook's software was just, the way Google describes it, a necessary measure to prevent damage (Google says "detriment", which is the Anglicized version of the Latin word for "damage") from being caused to the whole ecosystem.

But Google does not want to allow Oracle to control Java the way Google controls Android.

Google today is saying that "social media is important." Just look at their wave of product announcements & their bonus structure.

I loathe the approach (and the message), but I accept it. ;)

Machine Readable Disclosure

Jun 21st

You Must Disclose, or Else...

Matt Cutts has long stated that machine-readable disclosure of paid links is required to be within Google's guidelines.

The idea behind such Cassandra calls is that the web should be graded based on merit, rather than who has the largest ad budget. The Google founders harped on this in their early research:

we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.

Google is not the only search engine in town, and they have been less forthcoming with their own behavior than what they demand of others.

Ads as Content

Both SugarRae and I have highlighted how Google's investment in VigLink is (at best) sketchy given Google's approach to non-Google affiliate links. And now Google's "ads as content" program has spread to Youtube, where Google counts ad views as video views. The problem with this is that any external search service has no way to separate out which views were organic & which were driven by paid exposure.

(Google has access to that data since they charge the advertisers for each view, but there is no way for any external party to access that data, or know how Google is using it other than what Google states publicly).

That is the *exact* type of pollution Google claimed would undermine the web. But it is only bad when someone is doing it to Google (rather than the other way around).

Youtube = Wikipedia + Wikipedia + Wikipedia

As independent webmasters it can be annoying seeing Wikipedia rank for everything under the sun, but after Google's "universal search" push Youtube is far more dominant than Wikipedia. When the Panda update happened Youtube was around 4% of Google's downstream traffic. Youtube has grown their Google-referred traffic by about 4% a month since Panda, up until last month, in which it grew by 18.3% according to Compete.com. That now puts Youtube at over 5% of Google's downstream traffic (over 3x as much traffic as Wikipedia gets from Google)!

1 in 20 downstream clicks is landing onto a nepotistic property where Google has blurred the lines between ads and content, making it essentially impossible for competing search services to score relevancy (in addition to making features inaccessible, the data that is accessible is polluted). It is unsurprising that Youtube is a significant anti-trust issue:

Google acquired YouTube—and since then it has put in place a growing number of technical measures to restrict competing search engines from properly accessing it for their search results. Without proper access to YouTube, Bing and other search engines cannot stand with Google on an equal footing in returning search results with links to YouTube videos and that, of course, drives more users away from competitors and to Google.

Google promotes "openness" wherever they are weak, and then they erect proprietary barriers to erode competitive threat wherever they are strong.

Playing Politics

At some point it is hard to operate as a monopoly without being blindingly hypocritical. And this is at the core of why Google's leading engineers feel the need to write guest articles in Politico & Eric Schmidt is working directly with governments to prevent regulatory action. They understand that if they curry favor they can better limit the damage and have more control of what sacrificial anodes die in the eventual anti-trust proceedings.

Is Google Lying Again?

As a marketer & a publisher you can go bankrupt before governments react to monopolies. Thus you need to decide what risks are worthwhile & what suggestions carry any weight.

Here is the litmus test for "is this piece of information from Google more self-serving garbage" ... does Google apply the same principals to itself in markets it is easily winning AND markets it is losing badly?

If their suggestion doesn't apply to Google across-the-board then you can safely ignore it as more self-serving drivel from a monopolist.

Schema, Scheme or Scam?

Jun 4th

"I am just like a robot - following only what I have been told." - Katutu, Google toolbar testimonial

As long as end users get their Angry Birds they really don't care how it comes to them. But they should!

Right now, an aggregated link to this entry places higher in a search of the title than my own site, which is a Page Rank 5 site (i.e. it has a lot of "strong" links in and a lot of content). That is a snapshot of what is pushing the Media to spewing ever louder and more meaningless sounds and furies.
...
search engine offshoots have failed the nation, profoundly, deeply and irrevocably. - Charles Hugh Smith

Google & Bing recently launched Schema, a way to "help" publishers mark up & structure their content.

If you are the first person in your vertical to leverage these new formats that can help your listing look more appealing & help you capture a bit more of the traffic (for a while). But after a half-dozen sites in your vertical use it then it no longer becomes a competitive advantage, rather just an added cost of doing business (just like Google Checkout or +1).

Then eventually it becomes much worse. Rather than being a "top resource" you get to become a "top reference" (unlinked, of course).

Your content ends up in the search result and you are an unneeded artifact from the quaint & early days of the web.

"Many answers to search queries can be computed, rather than simply returning a list of links from an index." - Eric Schmidt

In *totally* unrelated news, ...

Google Places is at it again, brazenly borrowing reviews from Yelp. But this time it’s in their iPhone app and they are not even bothering to link back to Yelp or attribute where they are getting the reviews.
...
Apparently the issue is also happening with other sources of reviews and local data such as TripAdvisor. Google says it is a mistake and it is fixing it.

If you go outside Google's guidelines & they try to penalize you for it, simply remind them that it was a technical glitch, a misinterpretation, an accident. No need to worry, as you will fix it on your end at your leisure.

It is almost universally far more profitable to do what Google does, rather than to do what they tell you to do. A fact many webmasters are waking up to 100 days after Panda torched their websites.

On a related note, JC Penny (which flagrantly violated Google's guidelines with bulk link buying) was allowed to rank again after 90 days.

"You don’t want to be vindictive or punitive, so after three months the penalty was lifted." - Matt Cutts

Those that were hit by Panda are still left in the lurch over 100 days later.

If penalizing for greater than 90 days for flagrant guideline violations would be considered "vindictive" or "punitive" then how would one describe a 100-day penalty for not breaking the guidelines?

The slow recalculation isn't an accident.

Google whacking a webmaster & then paying someone to steal their content is no different than a crooked bank that commits accounting fraud & then throws their own customer in jail for the crime the bank committed! It could become temporarily inconvenient if the press covers it, but until then who cares?

Certainly not Google.

As the original content sources disappear from the web, the aggregators eat more clicks & get fatter on the no-cost, no-effort profits (in some cases their duplication not only replaces the original source, but drives the original source into bankruptcy, making the duplicate become "unique" content). Youtube's traffic from Google has grown over 4% a month for a few months in a row. Ask grew their Google search referral traffic by roughly 25% in a couple months (while starting from a rather large base).

Keep working on adding quality and value. Then mark up your work. Google will keep working on sucking profits out of the ecosystem.

Possession is nine-tenths of the law.

Search as a Verb: a Digital Representation of the Physical World

May 30th

A Copy, of a Copy, of a Copy

There are many approaches to online navigation & discovery. On the surface many of them look exceptionally different, but when you look a bit deeper many of them are playing the same game with the same game plan. The main differences are brand perception & marketing angle, but they all copy off of each other.

New Ideas, or The Same Ideas?

There is an illusion that social media is significantly different because messages from friends are mixed in with the other stuff. However, when you look at the aggregate trends, ultimately social media pushes the same stuff that the mainstream media pushes (which is the same stuff that post-Panda Google pushes).

Researchers at HP tracked Twitter:

Huberman and three fellow researchers demonstrate that "user activity and number of followers do not contribute strongly to trend creation and its propagation."

Instead, says Huberman, "we found that mainstream media play a role in most trending topics and actually act as feeders of these trends. Twitter users then seem to be acting more as filter and amplifier of traditional media in most cases."

Social signaling is powerful. It drives people to like things they otherwise wouldn't. And the tear down is far faster & far more brutal than the build up:

it's amazing how you can be the king at one point, quote unquote, and everyone loves you and the minute your time has passed and it's time for you to get torn down. When it's tear down time -- woah, it's harsh. There's no pity. They will hurt you however. Jabs, uppercut, hooks, and they want to see you on the floor knocked out. TKO. That's what they want. I saw it happen to some people, but when it happens to you, it's amazing how devastating it can be. When the negativity is directed at you, it hurts because you're there as an entertainer. You want to please your fans, have a good time and make them smile. You do the best you can on stage for them, and suddenly, you're nothing but a joke. - Fab Morvan, Milli Vanilli

Facebook is also aiming to highlight big media:

Facebook is developing features that will make the sharing of users’ favorite music, television shows and other media as much a part of its site as playing games or posting vacation photos.

Along with the official relationships (and game board tilting) that big media enjoy, larger merchants can also tilt the table by selling into a new category with a loss leader to buy marketshare. In some cases they can promote give aways that use social signals as a form of payment.

The largest companies enjoy an asymmetrical information advantage, which easily allows them to scale up and down the value chain to dominate their vertical. Amazon.com sold books, but after Kindle they now sell more ebooks than physical books, they promote new formats like Kindle singles, and they look to be pushing into publishing. That is great news for authors, but is certainly scary for some traditional publishing companies.

Most of the "social" signals will generally promote that which is already large, or (for smaller businesses) that which is weird, funny, exotic, extremely biased, comforting & (falsely) empowering, fluff, or brutally honest.

If you are small, race toward an edge & stick with it. Own an idea. ;)

Like vs +1

Facebook has their popular like button. Google owns like.com, which unlike other shopping-search businesses that Google has bought and folded in, remains an active site, in spite of the launch of Boutiques.com. Google unveiled the +1 button to compete with Facebook. Facebook's add as friend button now states "+1 Add as Friend."

In a recent Youtube video, Matt Cutts highlighted that "Google will use +1 activity to influence its search results ... "It's definitely a signal we're paying a lot of attention to," Cutts said. "It has tons of potential. It looks very promising."

Google accidentally leaked on TV that they were going to bake +1 into Google Chrome.

Like vs Spy

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about how some of the social media voting buttons track users, even if they do not log in to the social networks or click on the voting buttons. You can avoid using the official buttons & use third party buttons, but those companies do the same thing! You can say "enough is enough" and simply avoid all the social media nonsense, but unfortunately 25% of Google's bonuses this year are tied to social crap. If you ignore social & your competitors do not, then ultimately you lose.

As I wrote earlier, many of them are playing the same game with the same game plan.

Other Search Engines

Blekko's slashtag model is all about highlighting content from the most well known sources in a niche. When you think about some of the really awful misinformation shared in the SEO space it is clear that popularity & quality are not the same. But if you have brand, sound authoritative, and speak of innovative changes; those can easily mask any factual errors. ;)

Bing's Stefan Weitz was recently interviewed by Eric Enge. In the interview Stefan points out how he thinks Bing sees the web differently than Google, in that:

  • they "look at the web as a digital representation of the physical world"
  • search will move from a web of nouns to a web of verbs, helping you to complete tasks in a more integrated manner: "there are enough services opening up their protocols and their APIs, Bing can then broker out that request to a number of different services across the web and stitch that information back together to help me go from I want to do this to I have done it."
  • "Humans have this primal behavior around the social experience where we almost always ask our friends and acquaintances for advice."

I highly recommend the interview as a must read to understand where search is headed. The speed of change in technology is increasing at a logarithmic progression & search is going to become much more of a complete end-to-end service.

The big takeaways for me from that read were that Bing will be doing hard brand pushes at some point (a digital representation of the physical world) & a lot more tight vertical integrations (a web of verbs). In summary, that means their game plan is just like Google's.

Partnering vs Owning

The only areas where they are significantly different currently is that Microsoft is trying to partner to build an ecosystem, whereas Google wants to own the ecosystem (see Freebase, Google's ITA integration, Google Places pages scrape-n-displace, BeatThatQuote / Google Advisor, illegal ebook scanning, Google's botched partnership with Paypal on mobile payments).

Hosting Youtube's 3 billion daily video views, Google now controls more display ads than Yahoo! does.

More Data = Better Relevancy

In search, more data is typically better than better algorithms. As more signals get mixed into the pool, the value of any individual signal decreases.

Google has tried a number of attempts to solicit end user feedback & collect user data: the Google toolbar, Knol, SearchWiki, SideWiki, Google Chrome, etc. The Google founders have desired an annotated version of web more than search:

Sidewiki feels like another swing at something Google seems to desperately desires — a community of experts offering high quality comments. Google says that’s something that its cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted more than a system for ranking web pages. They really wanted a system to annotate pages across the web.

Yelp has dominated the review space, but in Portland (a test market) Google has collected more local reviews than the rest of the big review sites have in the history of their existence - and it only took them a couple months to do it.

A lot of information is coming online, but it is hard to sort out the signal from the noise unless you have identity. Google now has that through Gmail, Google Checkout, Android & Google wallet.

Eric Schmidt suggested that smartphone contacts could be used to create a social graph. Those cell phones use local services to send your location. With Google Wallet they are willing to give you $10 just to try it, simply because they know they will make more than that back on improved ad targeting & getting a taste of local ad budgets via their offers. They even have stickers to put on phones without NFC to enable it.

Who are the real wine experts in Portland? Maybe the people who...

  • actually live there (confirmed by the address associated with their credit cards, the IP address of their home computer & the location information Android phones share with Google)
  • those who are consistently spending hundreds to thousands of Dollars a month buying wines (the more skin you have in the game the more weight Google can put on your feedback & reviews.)
  • those who review wines (Google can offer perks & bonuses to get people over the hump, & then add social game dynamics like badges)
  • those who review wines who have positive reviews from other wine drinkers (nothing like a little peer review to an academic mind)

What wine stores in Portland are the best? Probably the ones which the above wine reviewers shop at. Looking up driving directions can be seen as a relevancy signal.

What wine stores in Portland are less scrupulous? Those which are mostly given 5 star reviews by out-of-town (or, out-of-country) people who have never logged into Google from an IP address in the Portland area, never used an Android phone in the Portland area, and have never looked up driving directions around the Portland area.

Cell phones show human movement predictable 93% of the time.

More Holistic Marketing

At one point in time online was a new and (fairly) level playing field where one could win based on meritocracy. Increasingly though search is becoming "a digital representation of the physical world." To win online you will often be required to win offline.

With all the above data being included in Google's algorithms in the coming years (along with other brand signals) some people might decide that SEO is becoming too hard for the head keywords & that they are better off playing in the tail of search. But even that has 3 big problems:

  • if you have too many low quality pages Google can torch the whole of your site for it (and at this point it has been close to 100 days since Panda, and virtually no recoveries have been reported)
  • the eHow model will be reformulated at some point & added into some of the larger publishers that Google's algorithms boosted the rankings for, so if you are not one of those guys then they would still have a cost advantage over you through increased rankings & distribution (along with easier influence of social signals & such)
  • Google is looking into renting ebooks & could eventually unveil an ad supported ebook model for endless editorially-reviewed longtail content (and since Google would host those ebooks they would be able to track more relevancy signals from them, just like they have with videos on Youtube).

Certain categories with significant guilt or shame (say genital wart removal, criminal defense lawyers, etc.) won't have much end user data shared publicly (or, at least, users won't intentionally share that data with Google - though they may do so accidentally). Many (most) categories will have a sea of data available. And in those categories, at some point jumping through technical loopholes will be so tiresome & expensive that it will be cheaper and easier to create the signals Google wants to see through brand, public relations, and consumer experience than it is to try to fake them.

As search is becoming "a digital representation of the physical world" some of the best SEO tips in the years to come will have nothing to do with sitting at a computer. In due time, in search, there will be no security through obscurity.

Indeed, the future is already here.

Category Killer Domain Names?

May 26th

Dr. Pete shared examples of the marketing funnel, highlighting how we must overcome hurdles (or break through barriers to conversion) in order to make a sale.

Why People Buy Premium Domain Names

The idea of an exact match domain (EMD) is that you are buying a piece of land right next to the highway. You sink in a lot of money upfront, but hope that it backs out over time by lowering your traffic acquisition costs. For many years this model was both logical and profitable.

At the peak of the domain name bubble recently, the domain name Poker.org sold for a million Dollars.

A domain name is an asset just like a stack of cash, a piece of gold, or a CDO is. But rather than having a fixed universal value, it is only a *relative* store of value that can go up or down based on market conditions. (Many of these other "fixed" stores of value also change in value when measured against other value stores over time, but they typically change value somewhat slowly and due to the acts of the entire market. With domain names, Google can use their dominant search position to drive massive changes in value in a short period of time).

Search Engines Influence the Value of Domain Names

Search is the primary mode of online navigation. For years search has been replacing almost all other forms of online navigation as the new default. There are about 7 billion people in the world with about half of them online. Google likely gets about a search per person every day!

Search engines can decide what variables they want to count & how much. In a world where subjective marketing aspects (like branding) are replacing signals of relevancy the value of keyword domain names is greatly diminished.

If your model works out to where it takes 3 or 4 years to break even & recoup the initial investment, then that model may look quite different if Google manages to redirect 50% or 60% of that traffic stream at some point in time ... at some point the price of the domain has to adjust to the new market conditions.

An Example of the New Normal in Search

With the above in mind, I thought it would be worth highlighting how the domain bubble grew & ultimately popped.

First, lets start with a current search result. The below example is for "pool tables."

Note that brands get a number of options to play here: AdWords ads, AdWords product ads, Google Product Search, branded navigation, big brands in the organic search results, niche vertical brands, and any local results for nationwide chain brands with a local outlet. Go back a couple years and this search result would have mostly been dominated by smaller online retailers & niche hobbyist websites.

The below image is from 2008. Notice how small the AdWords ads are & how 7 of the 10 organic listings on page 1 have "pool tables" in the domain name.

Today most of those results are off onto page 2 or 3 or beyond, where few searchers dare to go. Now even the exact match domain is forced to buy AdWords to compete for it's own name. Without the AdWords ad, the exact match domain would require a searcher to skip over 45 other links before finding it somewhere below the fold.

Other keywords (like engagement rings) which once left room for review & comparison sites have been completely dominated by brands. Outside of end consumer reviews (and who but an expert publicly reviews more than 1 engagement ring? and who is not biased in their review of said rings with emotional attachments?) there is no way to get a comparative view of quality. There is no room for such an idea in Google's brand-only search results.

Update: Checking back in a few years later ... as of August of 2013 this post has only grown more true over time. In the following image, notice how the ads keep on scrolling, the size of the local result insert increased & now even the .com EMD "category killer" isn't even on page 1 of the search results any longer.

Let's pick apart how we got here...

Google Boosting Rankings of Authoritative Brands

In 2008 Eric Schmidt made the famous quote about how consumers are hardwired for branding. I mentioned how he was signaling the future of the algorithm, but was largely ignored at the time. Since then Google has launched:

The algorithm is only going to keep adding more signals that boost brands. PoolTables.com might have better editorial content than a mega-retailer like Amazon.com, but it is hard for them to collect as many reviews as Amazon can.

Social Search Brand Boost

Matt Cutts also stated that they like the potential of +1:

Cutts confirmed what Google said when the +1 button launched: Google will use +1 activity to influence its search results.

“It’s definitely a signal we’re paying a lot of attention to,” Cutts said. “It has tons of potential. It looks very promising.”

Big brands can do giveaways to their core customer base to expand into new markets, allowing customers to pay for the discounts with a vote, stuffing the ballot box on these new "relevancy" signals.

Bigger AdWords Ads

Google shifted the top AdWords ads to having a longer headline, which provides roughly a 13% lift in CTR.

In addition, AdWords ads have grown larger due to other ad extensions, like:

  • sitelinks
  • product extensions
  • phone numbers
  • maps
  • other nascent extensions, like videos

For commercially viable keywords these have the net effect of pushing the organic search results further down the page. A recent study by Optify highlighted that while low CPC & tail keywords send most clicks (~89%) to the organic search results, for high CPC & head keywords AdWords ads consume most search clicks (~ 60%).

Google Comparison Ads

In certain high money verticals Google offers Google Comparison / Google Advisor ads, which allow them to place a 4th ad slot above the organic search results.

Notice how much larger some of these ads are than typical ad units. When Google targets your keyword with one of these ads they significantly change the dynamics of the market.

Product Ads

Google has offered graphical product ads automatically matched to the search results. Generally for bigger brands Google offers these on a risk-free cost per acquisition pricing, whereas smaller advertisers need to pay by the click to use this ad format.

Googler announced that searchers clicked on this ad format nearly twice as often as regular search ads & in some cases Google has even started testing including these ads in their ad space that appears above the organic search results.

Search clicks are a zero sum game, so the more risk-free clicks the big box brands get from this ad format the lest clicks there is to go around for everyone else.

Product Search Listings

These serve as more eye candy to distract searchers from the organic search results. Once again these typically feature listings from larger brands & Google doesn't mind if these are a bit off because they still push the eye away from the organic results and toward the AdWords ads.

Look how off those "necklaces" are. Evidently if you are not a sport's fan you have no business wearing necklaces ;)

Localization

Localization is a boon for small local businesses which can now gain a slice of the local traffic stream that they were priced out of the market on. However, as a domain buyer, the value of AutoInsurance.com drops significantly after the large metro areas have localized results which do not allow the cost of an expensive domain to be amortized by the potential to rank everywhere. What is worse, is that the largest cities are the ones with the most vibrant economic activities (more businesses, more residents, larger loan sizes, and so on). Through localization any generic unbranded nationwide player simply misses out on the most valuable traffic.

Verticalization & Double Dipping Ads

Much like how localization locks generic players out of local markets, Google's increased verticalization (and allowing certain brands to double or triple dip on ad serving) now means that some results have over 80% of the screen's real estate dominated by a single key player.

Search Box > Address Bar

When Google Chrome launched it replaced the address bar with a search box.


That allows Google to...

  • intercept & redirect type-in traffic demand
  • re-highlight content you have already seen in the past (likely to be from some larger brands, as they have larger ad budgets & more ways to be found)
  • recommend popular searched-for keywords (which are often brands, since awareness-based advertising creates search demand

When Internet Explorer 9 was launched Microsoft also adopted these features

Taking control of the address bar one step further, Google has a beta version of Chrome out where the address bar is not even visible unless you scroll over that part of the page. Firefox also offers a similar beta extension! If this feature goes mainstream it wouldn't be surprising to see Microsoft follow suit.

Google Suggest / Instant

Google Instant's search auto-completion directs users away from some keywords and toward others. At first that statement seems like it could be saying that it consolidates search volume to a smaller set of keywords & thus could make domain names more valuable. However, if you have ever looked at a list of the most popular keywords you would know that they are largely filled with branded keywords. The media was aware of this obvious shift & Amit Singhal had to do an interview stating that there was no brand bias to Google Instant.

Awareness-based advertising biases keyword recommendations, which is why Pontiac ran a TV commercial telling you to search Google for their brand. Of course when SEO consultants did similar things they got whacked. ;)

Extra White Space

In the most recent beta Google has tamed this down a bit from the absurdity they were first testing, but Google has shown an interest in using whitespace trickery to drive the organic search results further down the page.

The rise of mobile applications & mobile search devices further pull leverage away from publishers & toward ad networks.

Google Acting as a Publisher & Affiliate

Not only Google, but all the major search engines are beginning to act as publishers & affiliates.

What's worse, is through personalization they have an asymmetrical information advantage over publishers in their ad network. They can tell you that you are getting 68% of the value of an ad click, but how do you know if they don't undervalue the contribution of that click while overvaluing the contribution for clicks where they keep 100% of the income on?

Google Small Business Taxes

Some sites get the benefit of the doubt, whereas other sites just get doubt. I highlighted how Google's approach to link buying, AdWords penalties & other issues vary based on who is getting whacked in our recent post about Google small business taxes.

Too Small to Matter

Smaller sites are more likely to come under attack from "the algorithm" as they are easier to knock over & are generally less stable. That gives them a higher risk factor & makes it even harder to build reliable business processes around it. How do you scale employment (or even inventory) when one month you are up 50% and the next month you are arbitrarily off 60%?

Further, Google has consistently screwed up original source attribution, which makes it even harder to justify for a small business to go the extra mile & spend extra money creating premium content, if the result will be Google paying someone to steal that content & wrap it in AdSense ads.

Where Does this Lead Us?

If you buy a "category killer" it is critical that you rank #1, but in many niches the exact match domains that ranked #1 for nearly a decade are now #3 or #4 in the organic results. Add in 3 AdWords ads above the organic results & things like product ads and it isn't hard to end up below the fold. If your relationship to that 1 keyword is your core competitive strategy but you can't even promote the keyword (because you are below the fold) then the strategy is a failed one.

Further, as Google keeps adding more usage signals into the relevancy mix that will keep favoring brands.

This is not to say domain names are dead across the board. there is still plenty of opportunity in some areas, but equally some names require large investment & as an SEO strategy may get thrown under the bus by any of the above (or similar future moves in other market niches).

I Stopped Buying Domain Names

I believe I was one of the first SEOs to publicly highlight the benefits of exact match domain names. Back when Google engineers were dismissive of it some of the smart money was dismissive of what the engineers stated and made plenty of money from it. But I have prettymuch stopped buying domains at this point...as in most cases the valuations generally don't make sense on a risk adjusted basis in the current market (let alone what the market will look like after the introduction of +1 & other brand signals).

Deep Pocketed SEOs Are Selling Their Domain Names

The person who was likely the single SEO most responsible for running up the price of exact match domain names (he over-paid for some of them based on the presumption that the numbers would back out similarly to some of his earlier investments in a market that was dominated by a government-sponsored bubble) has now become a domain seller.

You don't get much more amoral capitalist opportunistic than this person is (see the following before and after for his payday loans effort)

Now even he is now dumping many of his exact match domains, which I discovered in the most recent Media Options newsletter:

In March Matt Cutts talked down exact match domain names, but the truth is that Google never really needed to discount them, simply by adding more criteria to the relevancy algorithm which boosts brands they already had the same impact.

Search has moved away from relevancy toward promoting brands. As SEOs we don't control Google. We can only focus on promoting that which they reward.

The smart money is now saying that domain names are generally significantly overpriced, especially as an asset class valued based on SEO potential.

Where do you place your wager?

Google's Taxes on Small Online Businesses

May 26th

This Shouldn't Hurt Too Bad

One of the more perverse things about online markets is that since things are not done in person a lot of people are willing to work in the gray area. That allows people like Vitaly Borker to torture his customers as a marketing strategy. ;)

When Stanley Milgram did his famous study on if people were willing to torture others (so long as they thought it was part of a scientific experiment), he found out that the more distance they put between the torturer and torturee the more brutally they would behave. People would dial the voltage up to x if they were holding the hand of the person getting shocked, a bit more if the person was on the other side of a glass wall, and a bit more if they were behind a brick wall.

Fleecing Newbs

Many online economic innovations are ultimately scams, where the cost is hidden, with the scammers operating one step ahead of the legal system. Swoopo was basically a semi-legal form of gambling that took advantage of people's ignorance of math. As soon as it started working dozens of companies followed suit. The rage was so popular that people would buy overpriced "credits" to spend their "credits" to bid on the ability to get more "credits" at a slightly discounted rate. :D

OMG I Just Lost 3,000 Pounds!

The fake blog (flog) strategy where a woman writes about how she lost 40 pounds in a month due to Açaí & colon cleanse was an economic "innovation" where affiliates could rope a person into 2 fraudulent reverse billing scams at the same time.

Public relations hacks were quick to adopt the fake blog "innovation" for their corporate clients & such gems like Walmarting Across America & Working Families for Wal-Mart were born.

In Other "News"

Affiliates who needed to differentiate from all the other affiliates needed a new round of "innovation." So they would take the items or categories or topics they were selling something similar to & add a "as seen in" section on their websites highlighting how something tangently related to what they are selling was once mentioned in the media in some way.

From there it was a quick jump to fake celebrity endorsements & fake news sites offering "a special report on how you can get rich overnight" as a millionaire who wants to give back naively shares everything they know for $4 shipping in an anyone-can-do automated wealth generation blueprint, while losing 50 pounds in 1 month. :)

Step by Step

Ultimately sales is not an event, but a process. Which is why the above mentioned reverse billing scams only charged shipping off the start, so the perceived risk was lower than the actual risk (much like bad faith insurance companies that take your money until you need what you paid for, and then manage to disappear).

Everyone Pays for Fraud

The scammers eat off the plates of everyone honest in the marketplace. Multiple times a month I get refund requests from people who bought something totally unrelated to us from Clickbank, demanding I give them their money back for something that is in no way related to us. I highlight that refunds at clickbank.com is where they need to send their emails, but for every person who manages to get their money back there are likely 5 or 10 more people who are disillusioned & less trusting of online markets & online marketers.

Google Polices Scams *Everyday*

Circling back to the SEO & PPC niche, Google has to deal with the scams & scammers every day. In certain cases where it is exceptionally profitable (say illegal prescription drugs, knock off goods, Obama mortgage modification) Google may choose to look the other way / have lax policy enforcement, but at some point looking the other way creates financial risks & a risk of brand damage.

Doing What is Easy = Doing What is Best?

Generally when it comes down to it, Google's revenues are heavily concentrated & no matter how widespread or profitable any individual scam is, they can cut it out of their ad network without being overly concerned. Last September AdAge shared data showing that there are around a couple thousand advertisers spending over $10,000 a month on Google ads. While the longtail concept is widely praised, in the search ecosystem it reflects more on products rather than merchants. Some time ago SEM Rush sent me the following chart highlighting AdWords spend breakdown estimates.

Their numbers are based off of the publicly shared Google keyword estimates (which generally skew toward trying to get advertisers to spend more), and I believe they may count certain AdWords ad management platforms as being 1 advertiser each, but yet again Pareto principal appears in the data & Google could keep roughly 80% of their US search revenues if they only accepted ads from the top 5,000 advertisers (out of more than 300,000). And those estimates were before Google widely launched their CPA product ads, which only further consolidate traffic to a smaller number of websites.

Ultimately Google can try to police an ecosystem of x thousand companies or an ecosystem of x million companies. The latter will have more innovations in it, but also a wider variety of scams & be much more expensive to police. This is a big part of the reason Google has felt the need to become more & more portal-like over time. Their engineering culture assumes that they can do it better internally.

Depending on how your positioned, their anti-innovation "do what is easy" approach to search can either be a boon or a major hindrance. The companies that were worried about maintaining complex search strategies which sorta fell into top rankings on the Google brand +1 obviously benefited. But Panda (and Google's approach to AdWords) keep raising the bar on smaller businesses.

I thought it would be worth highlighting a few examples:

Google Arbitrage Tax

A friend recently had their AdWords account penalized for running an "arbitrage" business model.

  • the site wasn't advertising for revenues, but to build links & awareness
  • the ad campaign was inactive
  • the site had since been sold & the buyer added another ad unit to the page

To appreciate how arbitrary the above editorial judgement is against that webmaster, not only were they 0% responsible for the alleged editorial infractions, but 3 hours after the sincere "notification only" email Google did a follow up which said the site was once again approved to advertise, but the ads need to be re-submitted for review.

We live in a world where flagrantly parasitic sites like Mahalo required "an algorithm" (with endless collateral damage) to fix & yet the above sequence is somehow a reasonable way for Google to treat there paying customers.

Much like there is "too big to fail" there is also "too small to matter" but if you look at Google's numbers you can see how that happens. We are basically expecting them to be better than all other monopolies if we expect a level playing field.

Google Disclosure Tax

Some smaller advertisers may get their AdWords campaigns disabled because they offer a freeware trial, where a person has to buy the full version to unlock all of it's features. Google suggests that these advertisers lead with the disclaimer that a customer may eventually spend a Dollar if they like what they are trying, but sales is a process rather than an event. Sometimes you first have to show proof of value before people are willing to spend money. The problem is that if you are paying for every click & you have to lead with your disclaimer of potential cost for a full upgrade (and so on) then you are not going to be able to compete with a larger brand that does not need to clearly display disclaimers.

The flip side of the above is that Groupon can put their TOS in a foreign language & it is no big deal.

You can only have a strong conversion-oriented page with message clarity if you are a brand, otherwise you need to LEAD WITH THE DISCLAIMERS, which never works if you are paying by the click in an efficient market if you are taxed x% of conversions upfront. Not only are brands given leeway, but Google also allows their own products & services to routinely violate the terms of service they push onto others. The footer on Google Advisor states "The information displayed here was provided directly from the issuer and/or collected from the issuer's website. Check the details pages for each offer for the data source and update time. Google is not currently being paid for these listings."

Note the "NOT CURRENTLY." So everyone else is required to place the entire info harvesting policy next to the form, but Google can have a "google protects you from spam, Learn more" link which they specifically prohibit just linking to as an AdWords advertiser. Where do you see EXPLICITYLY how you can opt out of communications? Look at the table at the bottom of this page.

If you are creative enough you can say that disclosure doesn't have to kill conversions, but the problem is that sometimes it does. And when it does, it is not like there are many other avenues for you to compete online. In some markets Google owns over 95% of the search marketshare.

The brands always have the flexibility of setting up a mini-site to test if unbranded works better, but the non-branded smaller advertiser doesn't have the option of using similar textual formatting to their larger competitors.

Google Data Harvesting Tax

Online self-regulation of ad networks is going slow because ad networks prefer to focus on arbitrary technical limitations (that they can later worm around) rather than focusing on the real world impacts of how people are profiled.

Part of the reason Google & Facebook are willing to invest into smearing each other publicly is they are trying to damage each other's brands so the other is trusted less, so that they may build an asymmetrical information advantage.

The big issue with data harvesting is that one company's sales funnel or cross-marketing campaign is another's data harvesting scheme. Just like the tax on disclaimers, this is another area where larger businesses of scale get an economic advantage by being able to get more benefit of the doubt on their approach

Google's I am Duplicate Content Tax

In the past I highlighted how some webmasters have trouble ranking for their own content due to duplication & how it could even impact their ability to buy ads. Ultimately this leads to some level of fear & indecisiveness amongst many small business owners who may become afraid to have duplicate content anywhere on their sites.

While these businesses are told they don't add enough value, the biggest players grow through acquisition & duplication:

  • Google runs a product search engine, Boutiques.com & Like.com.
  • Google runs Google video search, Youtube & Vevo.
  • Bankrate runs Bankrate.com, CreditCardGuide.com, CreditCardSearchEngine.com, Interest.com, CreditCards.com, and NationwideCardServices.
  • Expedia runs Expedia.com, Hotwire.com, Hotels.com, TripAdvisor.com, & tons of smaller niche websites

Google Link Buying Penalty Tax

The Panda update made it so that certain businesses did not need to build (m)any links to compete, while some other businesses were required to build many more links to stay competitive.

Around Mother's Day there was a hit piece in the NYT about how some online flower sites were buying links. Google's official take was that they did not care about the link buying since those brand rankings (allegedly) did not impact the search results. Today those same link buyers rank #'s 1-4 in Google

Brands rank because Google puts weight on brand-like signals (and they can get away with link buying which smaller competitors would get torched for). Then Google claims that the link buying is irrelevant because it doesn't influence the search results.

With that sort of circular logic why does Google even care about paid links at all? Why do they arbitrarily police one segment of the web?

On the flip side, there is a suspicion of smaller webmasters which is core to how Google operates (even if the site they are passing judgement on ranks right at the top of the search results for core industry keywords & is linked to organically from top newspapers). Sometimes it is a "shoot first, ask questions later" approach.

Google recently started sending out "unnatural link profile" notification emails. Well if they can detect that the link profile is unnatural then why can't they automatically discount it? (Didn't they just say they do that?)

Why, in this instance, do they suggest they can identify the problems & that a business owner should first be penalized for it, then need to fix it before reconsideration, all the while some larger businesses do the same exact things but Google looks the other way because they claim to have already detected it?

Why does one form of detection require penalization while the other doesn't?

Unstable Business Tax

During the Panda update many small businesses (which did nothing wrong other than participating on the same Internet that the likes of eHow abuses) got torched. They were given abstract qualities where they need to improve on. Over 3 months later they are still in the dark hoping the penalty clock hits zero before the bankruptcy clock does.

When traffic heads south & becomes unreliable a business not only loses that income, but it also loses negotiating leverage with suppliers.

The uncertainty not only retards investment, but may lead to physical, emotional, social & mental health issues. People make better life decisions when they are driven by love than when they are driven by fear.

Localization

The one big counter-trend to the move away from small businesses is Google's increased emphasis on localization, which allows some small local businesses to participate in search markets that they were simply priced out of in years past.

AdWords: Yet Another Problem With Google's Panda Update

May 10th

Hit By Panda

In a recent comment someone shared the fate of Patrick Jordan, owner of justanotheripadblog.com.

Since the Panda update happened, some scraper websites (monetized by Google AdSense) have started outranking Patrick for his own content.

Panda = No AdWords Soup for You

Distraught with the decline in traffic, Patrick turned to AdWords to try to bridge the gap and drive some revenues.

Unfortunately, Google wouldn't let him do that either:

I asked on what grounds he had decided that my site does not produce original content. His answer was that he had typed a sentence into Google and found it contained at many sites around the web. Seriously, I made a lengthy strong case for my site's record of having 100% original content and he typed one sentence into a Google search.

I emailed back and asked him to be specific about his search. This was his reply:

"An example of a specific sentence that appears in multiple websites is "a superb app for iPad and iPhone that lets you quickly and easily transfer photos and videos between iOS devices and computers – has been updated this week, to Version 2.3."

Google Rolls Out the Red Rug (for AdSense Scrapers)

Think about how perverse this is:

  • Google algorithmically penalizes your site
  • Google won't say why it is penalized, other than some abstract notion of "quality"
  • Google offers no timetable on when things can improve, but suggests you keep spending increasing sums of capital to increase "quality"
  • Google pays scraper sites to steal your content & wrap it in AdSense ads
  • Google ranks the stolen content above your site (so the content has plenty of "quality" but it is just not "quality" on your website)
  • Google ignores your spam reports & DMCA notifications about how they are paying people to steal your content
  • Google tells you that you can't even buy AdWords ads, because you are now duplicate content for your own content!

Contributory Copyright Infringement

So now we have Google telling advertisers "I won't even take your money" precisely because Google is paying people to steal their content. Small publishers likely don't have the capital needed to sue Google, but clearly what Google is doing here *is* flagrant, systematic, abusive, and illegal (contributory copyright infringement).

One of Google's larger enemies may want to fund some sort of class-action lawsuit. Google deserves far more of a black eye than they have got in the press from the embarrassment that is the Panda update.

Um, Could You Please Help Me Out a Bit Here Google?

Patrick Jordan begged Google for help in March. In response they sent him this:

Yet Another Webmaster Loses Faith (& Trust) in Google

Since Google has ignored him (for months), Patrick felt he had to rebrand & redirect his old website to a new iPad website. Google made (a rather long and egregious series of) mistakes. And he had to pay the price for it, because Google is a monopoly that doesn't give a crap about how destructive their business is on the ecosystem, so long as it increases their profits.

Again I ask, how long does Google leave this mess in place before publishers broadly take a more adversarial approach to publishing?

Now that Google is aware that the panda fallout is costing THEM money, it will likely get cleared up quickly. I suspect to see an update within the next couple weeks at most. And it would happen even quicker if the press actually did its job. ;)

Update: Matt Cutts stated that the site wasn't hit by Panda here, so that wasn't what caused this. However that still means that Google has to work on better highlighting original content sources over the scrapers, stop funding the scrapers via AdSense, and improve the internal policies which state that you can't buy ads if a scraper outranks you for your own content!

Ignore SEO, GoogleBot Will Sort it All Out for You

May 10th

How to Handle Duplicate Content

Here is a fun webmaster help video from March 10th of 2010, answering the following question:

"If Google crawls 1,000 pages/day, Googlebot crawling many dupe content pages may slow down indexing of a large site. In that scenario, do you recommend blocking dupes using robots.txt or is using META ROBOTS NOINDEX,NOFOLLOW a better alternative?"

The answer kinda jumps around a bit, but here is a quote:

I believe if you were to talk to our crawl and index team, they would normally say "look, let us crawl all the content, we'll figure out what parts of the site are dupe (so which sub-tree are dupes) and we'll combine that together.

Whereas if you block something with robots.txt we can't ever crawl it, so we can't ever see that its a dupe. And then you can have the full page coming up, and then sometimes you'll see these uncrawled URLs where we saw the URL but we weren't able to crawl them and see that its a dupe.
...
I would really try to let Google crawl the pages & see if we can figure out the dupes on our own.

Trust in GoogleBot

The key point here is that before you consider discarding any of your waste you should give GoogleBot a chance to see if they can just figure it out on their end. Then, without updating said advice, Google rolled out the Panda update & torched 10,000's of webmasters for following what was up to then a Google best practice. Only after months of significant pain did Google formally suggest on their blog that you should now block them from indexing such low value pages.

Matt's video also suggested some of the other work around options webmasters could do (like re-architecting their site or using parameter handling in Webmaster Tools), but made it sound like Google getting it right by default was anything but an anomaly. What such advice didn't take into account was the future.

What Does a Search Engineer Do?

The problem with Google is that no matter what they trust, it gets abused. Which is why they keep trying to fold more signals into search & why they are willing to make drastic changes that often seem both arbitrary & unjust.

Search engineers are well skilled at public relations. A big part of what search engineers do is managing the market through FUD. If you can get someone else to do your work for you for free then that is way more profitable than trying to sort everything out on your end.

Search engineers are great at writing code. A lot of what the search engineers do is reactionary. Some things get out of control and are so obvious that FUD won't work, so they need to stomp on them with new algorithms. Most search engine signals are created through tracking people, so they usually follow people. Even when it seems like they are trying to change the game drastically, a lot of that data still comes from following people.

What to Do as an SEO?

The ignorant SEO waits until they are told by Google to do something & starts following "best practices" after most of the potential profits have been commoditized, both by algorithmic changes & a market that has become less receptive to a marketing approach which has since lost its novelty.

The *really* ignorant SEO only listens to official Google advice & trusts some of the older advice even after it has become both stale & inaccurate. As recently as 2 years ago I saw a published author in the SEO space handing out a tip on Twitter to use the Google toolbar as your primary backlink checking tool. Sad!

The search guidelines are very much a living breathing document. If search engines are to remain relevant they must change with the web. Those blazing new paths & changing the landscape of internet marketing often operate in ways that are not yet commonplace & thus not yet covered by guidelines that are based on last year's ecosystem. Individual campaigns fail often, because they are trying something new or different. Off of each individual marketing campaign the expected outcome is failure. However they generally win the war. Those who follow behind remain in their footprints (unless they operate in less competitive markets).

The savvy SEO is a trail blazer who is pushing & probing to test some of the boundaries. They are equally a person who watches the evolution of the web through the lens of history, attempting to predict where search may lead. If you can predict where search is going you are not as likely to get caught with your pants down as the person who waits around for Google telling them what to do next. It may still happen in some cases, but it is less common & you are more likely to be able to adjust quickly if you are looking at the web through Google's perspective (rather than through the perspective they suggest you use).

Google's Noble Respect for Copyright

Google has a history of challenging the law & building a business through wildcatting in a gray hat/black hat manner.

  • They repeatedly broke the law with their ebook scanning project. Their ebook store is already open in spite of a judge requiring them to rework their agreements.
  • They bought Youtube, a den of video piracy & then spent $100 million on legal bills after the fact. When they were competing with Youtube they suggested that they could force copyright holders to pay Google for lost ad revenues if they didn't give Google access to the premium content. :D
  • They sold ads against trademarks where it was generally viewed as illegal and awaited the court's decisions after the fact.
  • They tried doing an illegal search tie-up with Yahoo & only withdrew after they were warned that it would be challenged. They later slid through a similar deal with Yahoo Japan that was approved.
  • They "accidentally" collected personally identifiable information while getting router information & scanning streets (and we later learn via internal emails in court documents how important some of this "accidental" data collection was to them).
  • They pushed Buzz onto Gmail users and paid the fine.
  • Google torched UK finance comparison sites for buying links. Then Google bought one of the few they didn't torch (in spite of its spammy links). After getting flamed on an SEO blog they penalized that site, but then it was ranking again 2 weeks later *without* cleaning up any of the spammy links.
  • When the Panda update torched one of your sites Google AdSense was probably already paying someone else to steal it & outrank you. Google itself scrapes user reviews & then replaces the original source with Google Places pages. The only way to opt out of that Google scrape is to opt out of Google search traffic.
  • Google promotes open in others, but then with their own products it is all or nothing bundling: "we are using compatibility as a club to make them do things we want." - Google's Dan Morrill
  • For years Google recommended warez and keygens and serials to searchers, all while building up a stable of over 50,000 advertisers pedaling counterfeit goods. That only stopped when the US government applied pressure, and then Google painted themselves as the good guys for fighting piracy.
  • Google is reportedly about to launch their music service, once again without permission of the copyright holders they are abusing.

Those were examples of how Google interpreted "the guidelines" in modern societies.

Google doesn't wait for permission.

What are you doing right now?

Are you sitting around hoping that GoogleBot sorts everything out?

If so, grab a newspaper & pull out the "help wanted" section. You're going to need it!

If you want to win in Google's ecosystem you must behave like Google does, rather than behaving how they claim to & tell you to.

How Brands Became Hardwired/coded in Google's SERPs

May 8th

In October of 2008 Eric Schmidt announced that SEO was about to get really ugly for anyone who doesn't own a brand. He didn't word it that way though. Rather, he stated

"Brands are how you sort out the cesspool. Brand affinity is clearly hard wired. It is so fundamental to human existence that it's not going away. It must have a genetic component." - Eric Schmidt

In response to that comment (& some of Google's pro-brand algorithmic updates) I created the following video.

Google's Brand Promotion History

Ultimately Google promotes brands for the same reason they promote Wikipedia: it is (generally) safe & easy.

Here is a history of how brand promotion became part of "the algorithm"

  • In 2003 Google did the infamous Florida update & ever since then they have generally trended toward placing more weight on domain authority (about the only big counter point to this would be Google's recent localization push)
  • Google's sandbox took it one step further by making it harder for new smaller sites to break through & giving them what amounts to a purgatory period
  • in 2006 BMW was caught spamming (after years of increased search traffic from spamming) they got a couple day slap on the wrist from Google. Smaller webmasters who were caught doing similar were penalized for far longer periods of time.
  • in 2005, shortly after announcing rel=nofollow, Google stepped up a campaign promoting FUD against link buying & promoting snitching (when combined with preferential treatment toward brands, this further favored big business at the expense of smaller webmasters)
  • over the years Google built increasingly sophisticated algorithmic filters to detect & demote aggressive link strategies (which, when coupled with brand promotion algorithms, further made it harder for small businesses to compete online)
  • in April of 2007 Google bought DoubleClick, highlighting Google's aspirations to move from demand fulfillment direct marketing ads into the lucrative brand advertising market
  • when the Google Vince update happened Google started placing more weight on search query chains, which would naturally favor large brands (due to their AdWords ad exposure on broader industry keywords & their large offline ad budgets - both of which aid recall by searchers)
  • when the Google Panda update happened Matt Cutts stated "we actually came up with a classifier to say, okay, IRS or Wikipedia or New York Times is over on this side, and the low-quality sites are over on this side." That algorithm allowed doorway pages & scraper sites to rank while killing off lots of smaller legitimate websites.

Sleazy Outing for Self-Promotion

In the later half of 2010 & the first few months of 2011 Google was getting beat up in the press about content farm spam (created by a combination of loose AdSense standards & Google putting too much weight on domain authority). To help deflect some of the bad press & show "who is boss" Google penalized both J.C Penny & Overstock.com for using manipulative links.

This past week the folks from Digital Due Diligence tipped of a NYT reporter for another hit piece. A lot of the top flower sites increase their ad budget around their busiest times of year, so coinciding with Mother's Day the New York Times highlighted how sites like ProFlowers, 1800Flowers, Teleflora & FTD were buying seedy links. I won't link at the NYT article because doing so would only promote more sleazy pageview journalism.

A Googler named Jake Hubert was quoted in the above mentioned article as saying the following:

"None of the links shared by The New York Times had a significant impact on our rankings, due to automated systems we have in place to assess the relevance of links. As always, we investigate spam reports and take corrective action where appropriate."

(Even Big Brands) Can't Rank Higher than #1

What is hilarious about that official Google comment is that sometimes Google has whacked websites based on perceived intent rather than results, & when I searched Google those 4 sites owned 6 first page results for that search query (along with the NYT article being listed as a 7th result (and 8th if you count the Google News result).

Google hard coded the algorithm to favor big brands (not once, but twice), promoted the big brands to the top of the search results, watches those brands violate their guidelines (in spite of said promotion) and then claimed that there is no corrective action needed for the violation since they already rank #1.

Well of course the paid links can't further improve a #1 ranking. You can't get any better than first place.

The good news for brands is that Googlers feel the sleazy outing angle is getting tired after J.C. Penny & Overstock.com & Google changed webmaster perception of their results with Panda (by making the common smaller webmaster pay for eHow's sins). Soon reporters won't justify wasting ink or bits on another sleazy SEO outing article because the pageviews won't be there.

At this point it is safe to say that Googlers don't really need to think of brands. All they have to do is search for *any* commercial keyword and click on the first result. The brand takes care of itself. :D

It looks like Eric Schmidt was right. Humans are hardwired for brands!

Indeed it is genetic.

Genetic algorithms that Google engineers code, with express intent of promoting brands! ;)

Questioning Amit Singhal's Questions

May 8th

Google's Amit Singhal offered more "clarity" into Google's approach with the Panda update. However I am not convinced that any clarity was actually added, and I think a lot of the questions they ask are to a degree even a bit wrong-headed.

Would you trust the information presented in this article?

Sounds like this is all about promoting perceived authority.

Counter points:

  • Did you (or anyone you know) trust this outlet to give you a complete worldview at any point in the last couple decades & end up bankrupt, utterly decimated, or destitute because you followed its advice (on say internet stocks or the housing bubble or using excessive credit because "this time may actually be different")?
  • Did your allegiance to this particular media outlet cause you to be more likely to be unbelievably ignorant & ill informed about world-shaping anti-facts used to push things like wars based on fraud? Are there extra trillion Dollars of debt your children must pay interest on & over 100,000 people dead because a news outlet lied to you? And the US government (the largest seat of power & authority in the world today) was also complicit in ensuring American citizens were ignorant going into Iraq.
  • A lot of news sites are given additional distribution through services like Google news, which start them from a position of authority (because if you go to search to find something & Google promotes their news vertical right away, then sites in that news vertical will rank highly instantly & accrue backlinks from that early exposure). The education system itself is partly a propaganda tool to teach you to trust an obey authority. If the banking crisis taught us nothing else it should have taught us that many authorities are not worthy of our trust as they act in self interested ways at the expense of the whole.

Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?

Mainstream media sites saw a $1 billion Dollar lift in annual ad revenue from the Panda update. Most mainstream media articles are *not* written by true subject matter experts, but rather by devout generalists who grab a couple quotes to fill out the shallow piece & make it feel more informed.

A lot of the "official" quotes are from officials who represent industry trade organizations. That means those folks support the interests of folks in that trade, even if/when that trade is working against the interest of the common man.

The problem is, you don't get to see who is a whore until *after* they already ____ed you. See for example David Lereah: "Ahhh, so he admits to being nothing more than a paid shill whose mouth was available for a price. How does that job description vary from the Trannies who hang out by the West Side Highway? In my book, not by very much. A whore is a whore is a whore."

Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?

*Cough* Google Video vs Youtube vs Vevo.

Aren't most AP articles by their definition redundant duplication?

How are some of Google's late-to-the-party services like their ebook store or their places pages justified if we seek to minimize redundancy?

Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?

Some sites aim to sell, while others aim to tell.

If a passionate hobbyist desires to share but isn't selling something (and thus uses a quirky site design or a more personal formatting structure) should they be dinged for putting their passion ahead of getting an unneeded SSL certification & paying firms like TRUSTe, McAfee & VeriSign?

Interestingly, sites which display some trust symbols are *more* likely to scam consumers. Being a con man requires abusing trust and confidence. Some of the top brands do just that, over and over again.

Sites which don't go out of their way to sell you something are more likely to be built on passion.

Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?

"Correct spelling, indeed, is one of the arts that are far more esteemed by school ma'ams than by practical men, neck-deep in the heat and agony of the world." - Henry Louis Mencken

Further, the error of omission is one that is constantly made in the mainstream media, which is precisely why you have to read fringe rags like the Rolling Stone to get an honest look at how bankers are robbing the country blind. Of course you will read the same article in the mainstream media in 6 or 7 years, after the statue of limitations runs out. And they will sell it as "new" news, even though the story at that point is nearly a decade old.

Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?

I can tell you sure as hell that the auto-generated spam stub pages on the mainstream media sites (driven by services like DayLife or Truveo) which scrape blogs like mine are not driven by passion. You can't program a bot to have "passion."

Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?

Hard to disagree with this point. However, it is worth noting that the mainstream media is notorious for stealing stories.

Further, I have had a client featured in a well read trade magazine where they wrote an entire article on the client. They were unwilling to link to the client's site (even though the client was the only source & entire purpose for the article) because they said they felt it would be too promotional. How warped is it that they will do a photo shoot at your house & make you the feature of an article, yet they are afraid to link because that might be seen as being too promotional!

Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?

This is actually a bit of a bait and switch styled topic. Let me explain. In an ideal world every single page would be great.

But when some brands are above regulation, Google keeps screwing up source attribution & Google creates no-value-add scraper pages like their places pages, if you ensure that every page you make is unique & value add then if you operate at any scale you will likely go bankrupt in the search game (unless you have significant non-search distribution).

Most articles individually are failures that do not pay for themselves. It is the rare success that helps carry the failures. You do not know which is which in advance, but you hope that with some level of effort and scale you are marginally profitable out the other end.

This is how literally all forms of publishing work: online, music, movies, books, etc.

In terms of a money loser, take for instance this article. I am already rather well known, have a wide following, spent hours writing that article, and ultimately it garnered 1 comment & 0 inbound links (once you back out scraper sites, automated links, and links with nofollow on them).

Making things worse, you not only compete against others who will copy anything of yours that is successful, but if Google does decide to whack your site with a penalty then a scraper site (which Google paid with AdSense money) that steals your content will outrank you for your own work. How exactly do you provide a unique substantial value add when Google is paying others to steal & republish your work wholesale?

Things like source attribution issues, brand bias, and Google competing against publishers with scraper pages have a very real and significant impact on profit margins. A good sustainable company is generally lucky to have 20% profit margins. When Google introduced their places pages that scraped TripAdvisor Google instantly redirected 10% of TripAdvisor's search traffic.

Ultimately the above issue with content is not down to cost or effort, but if what you are doing is profitable. If it is not, then it is simply unsustainable.

And even when you are profitable, you can count on Google helping others subvert that position.

On the topic of value add, I have even seen people buying AdSense ads to redistribute 3rd party works, where the only value "add" was lowering the retail price!

How much quality control is done on content?

A lot of the high ranking and much hyped social media networks like MySpace, Friendster, Twitter & Facebook are almost exclusively spam. A couple days ago I deleted over 75% of my Facebook "friends" because I was sick of getting daily email updates about how some dirtbag wanted to promote some autowealth MLM blaster unlimited downstream product on my wall.

That is not to say that everyone I deleted did anything wrong (most of them are likely good people) but there was no opportunity cost to spamming. The spammers who automate drive everything toward the tragedy of the commons. A paywall is perhaps the single best filter for quality, but if you use a paywall expect to deal with a lot of freetard rage & expect Google to pay some folks to steal it.

Google polices the web, but anything goes in their ad programs.

You can see how ridiculous the double standard is by simply considering that Google let their counterfeiting advertisers count grow to 50,000 strong before finally axing them when the US government pressured Google. Bizarrely, Google had the audacity to position themselves as good doers who were cracking down on spammers, when in fact they were taking their own longtime business partners out to the wood shed!

Does the article describe both sides of a story?

Mainstream media sources often like to share "both sides of a story" to seem unbiased. But the truth is that media by its very nature is biased toward the interest of advertisers & away from consumers. See, for example, either Manufacturing Consent or the BGH lawsuit.

Further, some well known corporations (LIKE GOOGLE) blackball media outlets that question them in certain ways. Google would never give exclusives to SEOBook & the sites that they do give exclusives to would lose the relationship if they were as blunt as we are.

Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?

Lots of recognized authorities have conflicting funding sources - something that was well highlighted in early Google research, and has been consistently exposed (years or decades after the fact) in the medical space.

Many firms which can "move the market" regularly trade against the advice they give to retail schleps.

Honesty is more important than authority, but then being bland & honest is not quite as remarkable (or profitable) as putting on a coat of spin.

Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?

How would Google's efforts stand up when graded against this suggestion? Why does Google have Google Video, Youtube & Vevo?

Further, most market leaders do have large networks and multiple branded sites for purposes of branding, segmentation, and double dipping in the marketplace. Remember when Bankrate (which already owned Bankrate, Nationwide Card Services, Credit Card Search Engine, Bankaholic, etc.) bought out CreditCardsGuide.com & it got temporarily penalized for the spammy links it had? Well it ranks again & of course since then they have also bought out CreditCards.com. You see this sort of behavior amongst almost any big brand: from Amazon.com to Zappos. (Oh wait, Amazon.com now owns Zappos!)

Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?

A lot of the best content comes from people who are subject matter experts. But those people may have only mastered their subject & may be new to: writing, website design, online publishing, etc.

For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?

Let's put it this way: the media people consume is in part responsible for the current state of health in the US where there is an obesity epidemic. Further, a lot of the leading health authority sites (like WebMD) run special advert sections in their site where it looks just like content but you have to read the small print to see it is an ad.

Going one step further on this front, it is worth mentioning that a number of the large pharmaceutical corporations have repeatedly sold drugs for off label purposes & yet none of their packaging is required to highlight those ill deed they did that have literally killed millions of people.

And let's not forget Google's take on educating misinforming the public about these drugs.

Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?

A lot of "authoritative" sites are simply sites with large ad budgets.

Quick, tell me which company advertises a clever gecko with a British accent. Other than as a mascot (& perhaps alliteration), how relevant is that gecko (or the accent) to their business? Not at all. But they do spend nearly a billion Dollars a year on ads.

Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?

Most articles that do are money losers.

Especially true while Google is funding so much no-cost automated web scraping.

Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?

Held to your own standard, how would Google Places pages hold up?

Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?

A lot of the stuff which is shared is shared precisely because it is ill-informed, controversial, or shares someone's pre-existing biases.

Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?

In the Manufacturing Consent DVD a big media guy highlighted that they like to have a 60/40 split between ads and content. Google already pushes online publishers to do less, even if Google does the exact opposite:

Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?

Aren't print magazines where a lot of the bait and switch headlines came from?

Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?

Do you mean something similar to most magazine articles? Or do you mean the content farms that Google funded & then used as a justification to torch 10,000's of small businesses?

Held to your own standard, how would Google Places pages hold up?

(I know. I know. If what you do looks like what Google does then you MUST be a spammer.)

Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?

This basically excludes almost any user generated content site, with the exception of Youtube.

Would users complain when they see pages from this site?

I'll complain about something I just saw. ;)

While searching for a link for a blog post I was writing today, the #1 Google result (not voted up by social circle stuff) was a Tweet linking to a Hootsweet framed page linking to a music industry site which posts RSS feed content and linked to a BusinessInsider article that referenced the TechCrunch article I was looking for.

If we want to get rid of unneeded duplication & noise then why is Google tying their bonus system to promoting more social media noise? After Amazon.com has done a great job with Kindle why is there a need for Google's ebook marketplace? After Yelp has created a strong community review site (with real editorial expenses) why is there a need for Google Places to scrape & displace its reviews?

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tl;dr

If you look at what actually happens in reality (rather than what folks claim to support in their "ideals") it is anarchy. The bankers stole what they could and moved on. The pharmaceutical corporations create fear-driven propaganda about the dangers of drug re-importation, all the while pushing drugs for off label purposes. Google pays people to steal your content, then tells you to suck it up & it is your fault you are not a big brand.

Anarchy is here.

The only difference is that it is dressed up in suits and fancy language, where people perceive anarchists as like ripped jeans, megadeth shirt wearing, pyro's.

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