Search, Advertising, Gatekeepers, & The Pending Online Security Wars

As email filtering gets better many of the true scammers of the web are shifting to distributing adware on websites. As terrorism is used to help politicians push their agendas, fear marketing and the concept of security are only going to grow in importance online as well.

Google vs Microsoft

Google already highlights some websites that might distribute malware in their search results and promoted research showing that Microsoft computers were twice as likely as Apache servers to distribute malware. In addition Google bought GreenBorder, perhaps to help them make an anti-virus / anti-spyware software program.

GreenBorder's Ulfar Erlingsson moved over to Microsoft Research. Microsoft is also pushing a suite of integrated anti-virus and anti-spyware service.

All Search Engines Link to Scammers

In May McAfee did a study on the safety of search results, noting that the paid search ads are far more likely to scam consumers than the organic listings by over a 2 to 1 ratio:

The improvement in search engine safety is primarily due to safer sponsored results. The percentage of risky sites dropped from 8.5% in May 2006 to 6.9% in May 2007. However, sponsored results still contain 2.4 times as many risky sites as organic results.

What is spam? What is a scam? Whoever is the trusted source for those limits gets to shift markets overnight. Google shows warnings near organic results leading to bad sites, but you never see that warning on an ad. The fact that the ads are over twice as likely to lead you to a scam as the regular search results shows the value of being trusted as the security police.

What People Forget About Efficient Ad Networks

Up to some point efficiency comes easy, but after you get to a certain point increased efficiency comes in the form of hidden risks, hidden costs, and outright fraud. It is a reflection of the nature of capitalism. Many of the tools that aim to protect you are hypocritical beyond belief. For example, SpamArrest, an email spam protection service, ironically spammed people via email.

How Valuable is Security?

As data collection gets more aggressive, and ad networks sell ads to scammers, being the company that is trusted for security is a big deal from a financial standpoint. Calling something unsafe gives ad networks another chance to monetize the user experience.

  • In the past Microsoft incorrectly labeled one of my sites as a phishing site.

  • My girlfriend just got a new laptop, and at the top of her IE browser was a huge Norton banner stating fraud monitoring is on.
  • Verizon recently launched a service that redirects typos so they can cash in, just like VeriSign tried to do.

How to Protect Yourself From the Security Wars

  • Use a short memorable domain name on a common TLD, so few capture typo traffic intended for your site

  • use home grown software if possible
  • keep your software updated
  • place community and interactive parts of your site on isolated domains or subdomains if they are known to get cracked (like PHPBB)
  • only link to trustworthy sites (if you have a community section keep it clean as well)
  • build signs of trust (links, subscribers, usage data)
  • minimize the amount of cursing done on your site or it might get flagged as being pornography, like mine recently did...as noted by an SEO Book reader who sent me this image from the Kansas City airport

Good Stuff Elsewhere

I tend to hate link aggregator posts, but I have read a lot of good stuff recently, and do not want to write 30 posts today or regurgitate other's info verbatim, so here is a link list of useful stuff I recently came across.

Affiliate Stuff

Search, SEO, & Personalization

by Joost de Valk

Business, Media, & Publishing

Arbitrage & PPC

Efficent Web Design & Development: Hacks to Save Time & Money

I have been writing too many in theory type posts, so here is a post offering many practical tips to increase productivity and lower your site development costs.

Site Ideas

If you have a deep interest in a particular market or understand some general macro-trends (online or offline) that gives you a big advantage over others in choosing what to make a site about.

You can track memes. See what is hot on blogs, on Google's hot keywords, or the Yahoo! Buzz Index. You can track retail. See what is hot on Amazon or eBay. You can track advertising. Look at top performers inside ad networks or affiliate networks like CJ, Linkshare, ClickBank, Azoogle Ads, or Performics. Also, if you see ads that are highly off target (like auto ads on a site about recipes) it probably means that ad buyers in that industry are hungry for ad inventory.

I also like to look at sites like Elance or ScriptLance to see what kinds of projects other people are creating. Also look at some of the past projects from some of the better service providers to find rich markets.

Buying a Domain Name

Go to PsychicWhois to look for names in related fields. If you can get an exact match keyword .net or .org domain for $8 it might be worth registering it. If you are aiming for a local market your local .co.uk or .ca might be a nice buy too.

Beyond that, there are some free tools that try to generate name permutations, like NameBoy, and a couple (fairly inexpensive) firms that do this were recently mentioned in the comments section on my interview of Frank Schilling. GrabaGoodDomain and PickyDomains cost from $50 to $100 (as of writing this).

Sites like Afternic, BuyDomains, Sedo, and Fabulous offer domains for sale for set prices, while SnapNames, Pool, TDNam, and Sedo (again) sell domains at auction. A couple years ago Mike Davidson wrote an article about buying expiring domain names.

At domain auctions the domains tend to typically go for fairly affordable prices. The .net and .org prices are fairly reasonable because many of the top auctions are based on some multiple of type in value. If the .com names seem a bit more mainstream they can get really expensive unless you have a strong monetization model or a large passive revenue stream. Frank Schilling mentioned that he paid 140x yearly earnings for SnoringCure.com, (over $8,000). Prices can vary widely though. A .net or .org or a URL with keywords in an alternate order may go way cheaper.

If you are creating a new word or brand it is best to get the .com of it, but if the .com is already registered and not much is being done with it yet you might be better off going with a .org or .net and using the price differential for site design, content development, and marketing.

Remember that once you start developing a name many of the associated costs (site design, content, market, etc.) are the same if you have a good name or a bad one. Eventually a good name should be able to pay for itself through lower recurring marketing costs.

Website Design

Some people are graphically inclined while being bad at coding. Working with a bad site design wastes time and may kill your interest in a project. Requiring the designer to produce quality workable code or turning design into a 2 step process might make it more manageable. You can pay one person to create the graphics and use a company like psd2html.com to convert the design into code can keep design costs low while keeping the code usable.

Themespress is a $10 service that can convert your code into a Wordpress blog template.

Another great design option is to just get a free blog template or free site template, then buy a logo from an affordable source. You can buy the logos from logo designers like The Logo Company or Logo Design Works, contests in design forums, or outsourcing sites like Elance or Scriptlance.

Content Development

Cloak Affiliate Links

By cloaking affiliate links through your .htaccess file or a PHP jump script it makes it easy to change affiliate partners if merchants change networks or payout levels.

Dynamic Development

I like using dynamic programing or server side includes to make it easy to change sections of a site without having to edit pages one page at a time. For example, many of my new sites have blank server side includes where the ads go. When the site gets some good traction ads magically appear.

Track Your Progress

Install a tracking script to track your progress to see what keywords you are ranking for and where you need to do more work. If certain sections of your site are more profitable than others make sure to over-represent them in your internal link profile.

How to Write Content:

You can find writers from sites like Craigslist, popular industry forums, look for local college students, or people who are already blogging about your topic. Six keys to profitable content development

  • use content as a marketing strategy: as noted here

  • segregate content quality: make sure features rock. make the other content good enough to pass a hand check and lead to conversions
  • grow your content in proportion to your link equity
  • don't display ads so aggressively that people will never link at your site
  • focus the content pages on inbound links and subscriber acquisition...show few ads on them
  • focus the conversion oriented pages on conversion :)

Email

Use Gmail or some other service that makes it easy to tag, archive, and search your email. I have been a bit behind on email recently, but hope to be catching up in the next couple weeks.

The Three Things You Need to Succeed Online...

are market timing, passion, and a unique data source. If you have none of those you are screwed. Of course you can get by well with only one of them for a long time, but the more of them you have the more sustainable your business model will be.

Leverage - Why Most Web2.0 Companies Fail

If you improve the value of another service based largely on their infrastructure or data, it usually doesn't take much for them to roll your offering into their well known brand, and kill your market position. Alexaholic was praised by Alexa for being innovative, right up until they sued when the creator failed to sell them the domain name. It took a year for Alexa to clone Alexaholic.

AuctionAds created an easy way to syndicate auction listings. Frank Schillng mentioned eBay to Go offers a similar interactive service. eBay to Go came out within months of the AuctionAds launch.

I helped launch ReviewMe. ReviewMe extended its model to include allowing advertisers to create a marketplace of review requests that bloggers can chose to accept. Text Link Ads also recently announced post level text links as a product under their flagship TLA brand, which is sold using a more profitable business model (since it has recurring ad costs). Patrick Gavin ensured I got a good deal, but without his dedication to making ReviewMe a success it could have just become a test platform for TLA that didn't make much money.

Tim O'Reilly wrote data is the new Intel inside. If your success is based entirely on another network's reach / brand / information / platform it is hard to have enough of a core asset to be profitable or a purchase target. It is hard to stay ahead of the value curve since the core brand has inertia and fatter margins. The reason most Web2.0 companies will fail is that they are creating entire companies based around a feature to another product, while having no market leverage.

John Reese on the Competitive Nature of Internet Marketing

I recently read John Reese's PDF announcing the launch of his new Income.com site. In the PDF he talks about how competitive internet marketing will become in the coming 5 years, and stated what are the two main ingredients to large sustainable profit in that type of marketplace. The first is on the concept of optimization:

The key to dominating any market online (now or in the future) is simple. It comes down to who has the highest average visitor value and who has the most traffic.

That is part of the reason I need to increase the price point of my ebook. There are only so many times you can see other marketers repackage and resell your information at a higher price point using aggressive affiliate marketing before you change your price point to more accurately reflect value.

I recently started a site with a friend of mine. Off the start it was frustrating doing all the tweaking needed to learn, but my friend so broadly believes in the concept of optimization that our site will probably out-earn older versions of its format by 400%. 4x the earnings on the same number of pages gives you serious capital for marketing investments and content production.

John's other tip is that when people land on your sites "Are you truly making someone's life better?"

I think that second point is one that is easy to miss if one is too shortsighted. Creating sites that are helpful / of significant value is something I want to work hard on, and has been core to the brand ideas behind my last couple major domain purchases.

Google as the Invisible Hand of the Online Economy

So I just got approved for Google's pay per action advertising account. It was exceptionally easy to sign up, perhaps frighteningly so. Currently there is little risk to using Google cost per action ads, but long-term I think the risk proposition is much uglier than most people appreciate.

Google Controls the Perception of Trusted Advertisers:

I recently did link building for a site where I tried to build links in a stale industry. Many of the people who had top ranked sites did not want to sell links because they were afraid that the links would eventually decay, and they did not want their site to promote garbage.

Many of these same sites published Google AdSense ads in the content area. These ads promoted garbitrage, sleazy offers that bombard you with email spam, generic surveys, off topic crap, etc etc etc. And yet these publishers didn't think anything was wrong with it, either because they were unaware of what they were marketing, or because they were not directly connected to it.

Google Will Find You:

If you want to do anything online you eventually run into Google, or the effects they have on the web.

Google started off with search, which allows them to directly connects with consumers. Their branding, distribution deals, relevancy, and market position have created the fundamental standard of relevancy that all other systems are compared against. It is hard to beat them on relevancy because they have more data than any other company in the world (toolbars, browsing history associated with user accounts, Gmail, AdWords, AdSense, Google analytics, free website optimizer, Google Checkout, cost per action ads, the most popular feed reader, etc etc etc). Even if you did find a way to match Google's relevancy, nobody would notice unless you could match their brand, and overcome the self fulfilling prophecy bias / skew Google's personalization features give searchers.

Spam Will Find You:

Google makes it easy to publish content and monetize even the worst content in the world. By placing their ads on Warez sites and sites they have identified as spam, they pay people to pollute competing search engines. You can't look at a competitive term in Microsoft's search results without tripping over a .blogspot spam page.

Quality is a Relative Term:

Google uses their market position and market knowledge to selectively display the most profitable ads. Consumers are advertised to without the perception of being advertised to. Quality scores support related businesses and trusted allies. Mid-market players make Google's ad relevancy matching engine more relevant. Outlier players do keyword research for trusted businesses until they concede those terms to margin squeeze and quality scores.

Due to the ease of implementation and depth of their advertising base, it is easy for new competitors to become an ally, publishing Google AdSense ads, and thus giving Google their usage data. This distributed ad network keeps Google abreast to market trends, allowing them to duplicate innovation, and buy competitors they can't beat.

We Are Not Flawed:

Google cloaks their own content, then sets up quality guidelines for others to follow, which they themselves do not follow. They outsource their flaws on marketers, and tell marketers to clearly identify paid links, all while teaching publishers to blend AdSense ads in content.

As Google changes their ranking criterias publishers addicted to the traffic source have no choice but to give Google even more control and authority.

Back to the Invisible Hand:

Google currently offers the following for free

Their newest ad unit is an unmarked text link ad, which only displays any ad notification AFTER people hover over the link. Publishers who refuse to sell links directly will publish the ads, and if they spread anything like AdSense does, what happens to links to commercial sites? What happens when virtually nobody is willing to link to a commercial site unless it is through Google? What happens when their affiliate payouts are not high enough to solicit a review? And what happens to those businesses when Googlers decide they want that market for themselves, like real estate?

More background here and here.

Adam Smith would be proud.

Questioning the Legitimacy and Authenticity of Internet Marketing Advice & Sources

Because I offer a marketing related ebook and blog about marketing stuff I get about 20 emails a month asking me if I reviewed product x or heard of person y. Most of the time these are hyped short lived marketing products or services that are repackaged ideas from 6 months earlier that upsell people on other junk. This is my general review guide on what types of products and services are trustworthy.

Are They Getting Paid Directly?

If people offer something of quality then most of their referrals are probably going to be more likely from non-affiliates than affiliates. Be wary of products that sound too good to be true, especially if the reviews sound exceptionally similar. Some merchants go so far as to pay people to spam internet marketing forums asking about their products.

Are they Getting Paid Indirectly?

On some of my other sites I have made thousands of dollars by publishing content on topics I am ignorant about, only because I saw brands spending millions of dollars on advertising and piggybacked on their marketing and brand.

Even if a site is using contextual advertising or some other non-direct ad model it does not mean that it should be trusted as non-self interested. In a search and advertising driven Internet world, just writing about popular things brings in money. If their ads are aligned top and to the left in the content area they shouldn't be trusted at all.

Even free non-profit content can be shady. Many not for profits pay their CEOs over $300,000 a year, and many people write about topics that grant themselves link equity, mind-share, or authority just by talking about them. John T Reed is exceptional at propping up his own domain via hate marketing.

Personal Trust of Sources:

It is much easier to rip off anonymous people than it is to rip off your friends.

A person who has spent significant time and effort building their brand and exposure is not going to wildly recommend scam after scam because building their mind-share and brand equity cost them too much to just throw it away.

The better you know the person making the recommendation and the more you trust them the more likely they are to be making a good solid recommendation.

If two independent friends recommend something then you can probably bet it is worth doing. Two days ago a friend mentioned a name to me and today I saw a mention on a blog I follow. After the second mention I had to have it, with no questions asked.

Self Interests:

Early SEOs, early AdSense publishers, and early domainers did not get rich by telling everyone to do what they are doing. If something is highly profitable, easy, and scalable why are they selling it? Why not just do more of it themselves?

If they are not motivated by profits and just like helping people their site should offer valuable information or serives for free or given away for donations instead of selling all the time. The first version of my ebook was free until I got a bunch of market feedback to help make it valuable. I really didn't care that much about money until I get sent a bogus lawsuit. I still blog a lot because it is an easy and scalable way to gain reach and authority with minimal cost.

Others are in far better position than I am and give back a lot, but most of those people are not constantly selling you something. They give just because they enjoy doing so. Some of the early domainers offer great entrepreneurial advice, fund non-profits, and even give living advice.

Think of Externalities: Value & Profit Have to Come from Somewhere:

  • Spam Google and Make Millions While You Sleep!!!
  • Unlimited Automated Content Today!!!
  • You are only $19.99 and one click away from wealth!!!

The value of any deceptive technique is inversely proportional to the number of people using it. If a spam idea is scalable and actually works, the profit has to come from somewhere.

If an idea is aggressively marketed, works (in a best case scenario...though most of the scams do not), and fills Google or some other large network with spam those networks will fight it off. They have to fight it off or they will lose their trust and market position. This is why companies like Digg have to keep some perception of control to keep their authority.

We strongly believe attempts to game Digg are ineffective. While it would be foolish to say that Digg has never been artificially manipulated in the 2+ years (50,000,000+ diggs) we've been live, we're confident that such attempts do not impact the content that reaches the home page.

But eventually the market calls them on it if it is a lie.

There is a reason the term banner blindness was coined. People learn to ignore even legitimate forms of advertising. If an idea tricks end users then eventually people are going to learn to ignore the noise.

That is not to say that there are no shortcuts, but if any single spam tool is widely promoted is going to have a limited lifespan. I generally consider spam to be things that are mass marketed to newbies and appeal to laziness, typically via wording that essentially means something like "secrets formula to unearth unlimited instant profits without passion or effort, guaranteed".

Understanding Search:

Anyone who tells you that all you need is a one page website is probably missing the point of search. Of course it is possible to rank a one page website, but typically only if it is in a non-competitive market, or if that person is well known away from that page, or if that page offers significant value, like some self reinforcing authorities do.

Giving Value:

Anyone who does not offer any value without squeezing information from you to pound you with an auto-responder is going against the general trends of the web, and the trend for how most people create authority by first creating and sharing value then monetizing.

Anyone can grab a couple small samples or other biased statistics, and hit you with them over and over again, but there is no reason to subscribe to that sort of never-ending sales stream.

It is even worse if the list is leveraged to hype the same things that are hyped by other JV gurus at the same time. If their information contains nothing but affiliate links to the next big thing then tune out the noise.

Real people trying to help you will recommend things that are of low margin or free. Give away value and people will come back. That is what Google does. And it works.

Is Email a Better Format?

If people allow free subscriptions to email lists, and their content has ANY real value, they would be better off sharing some of it online so they build their link authority and exposure. If you were sharing something that was honestly valuable and decided to make it freely available wouldn't you want as many people as possible to see it?

If they send every email twice with slightly different headlines or lots of oops I forgot messages realize those for what they are - aggressive hard sale marketing, not accidents.

Price Point & Temporal Effects:

If the price point is high and you hear next to nothing about a topic right up until many people are hyping it all at once they are probably getting paid an affiliate commission to hype it. Don't buy the hype.

Do the Math:

A few years ago one well known Internet marketing company tried hard closing me on some mentorship program. After I did the math I realized that I was already making more than my business mentor would be making working under the head guru. Where is the value in a business mentor who uses exceptionally aggressive sales techniques to make less money than you do?

Years later the same company who tried hard closing me was blowing up my inbox asking basic SEO questions. Months later they started selling an SEO information product at a higher price point than mine.

Your Complete System:

The web works so well because it is loosely bound. You can get the best pieces of this here, and the best parts of that from over there, often free. If you want to start a blog it is easy to set up Wordpress with a MySQL database (both free).

It is exceptionally hard for me to just keep up with the topic of SEO. Any company that has ALL the solutions for you is generally doing you a disservice if you want to be a market leader.

A Paid Ebook Full of Affiliate Links:

Some people sell no cost information products then load them up with affiliate links. If your sales price is all margin there is no need for back-end upsells. I asked my mentor NFFC how many affiliate links was too many to place in a for sale information product. He said 1.

What happens when affiliate commissions invade an information product is that the author tends to give you recommendations that run really deep, doing things like recommending smaller pay per click search engines alongside the big players even though the smaller ones have little real traffic and are probably not worth your time. Another problem is friendly recommendations and recommendations of paid products where better free alternatives exist.

Ugly Design:

Outside of UseIt, most authoritative sites generally look aesthetically pleasing, with some unique design elements to them. If a site is ugly then I think that cuts at the credibility of the information, especially if they use hard sales techniques.

Who are they?

Look for the same signals of credibility that librarians look for. If you can't tell who is behind a website it is probably a bad idea to buy from it. And if the person who told you about it said it is a secret or for members only, and there is an email subscribe box on the landing page I would not trust them. If they have to use games to garner attention then their stuff is probably a joke.

Dated Information:

One of the flaws of search is that many current experts are people who own old domains and are still considered experts even if they have not kept up with their topic for years. Just because a document is dated does not mean it is bad, but an old document about a changing field like SEO is going to have a high likelihood of having some bad analogies or advice in it.

Gut Check:

If you are skeptical of doing something don't do it.

Why Write This Page?

When I first got on the web I was lucky enough to meet people like NFFC, read Andrew Goodman's book and learn about Seth Godin, and learn to gain more confidence in my marketing skills. I was also lucky to be able to help set up a Search Engine Strategies conference and get a free pass.

If you are lead astray off the start you may not stick around long enough to succeed. But if you find the right mentors they may help you succeed far quicker than you expected.

I have friends that have grown faster than I have because they associated with good friends that provided symbiotic marketing opportunities. If your friends and information sources keep learning, keep pushing, and help build you up then you are going to do far better than a person who listens to people focused on maximizing how much revenue they can get out of you, because maximizers will keep selling even after their products stop delivering value, and they are more likely to lead you astray than to help you out.

The Naivety of Starting From Scratch

When I was new to the web I was excited when I would get things to rank from scratch, thinking I did a great job of SEO, but if your results are effective and consider applicable risks does it matter what techniques you used to promote a website? None of us really start out from scratch. When I started on the web I was a recluse with low living costs, lots of time, the need to be successful, and lots of rage. Those were off the web assets that played in my favor, as well as my liking for reading and writing, and my experience selling baseball cards in high school. I also had a friend who was web savvy and made many friends on forums. Without them I would have failed online.

That is probably too much of talking about me, but consider yourself:

  • what unique experiences or biases do you have?

  • what resources do you lack?
  • what resources do you have a lot of?

After you think of your own assets and skill sets, ask yourself if it matters how you achieve your results.

  • Does it matter how you learned what you know?

  • Is it better if your site is brand new? Or is it better if you bought an established site?
  • Is it better if you designed your site? Or is it better if you used a free template or paid a site designer to create it?
  • Is it better if your site is hand coded? Or is it better if you use an extensible content management system?
  • Is it better if your site validates? Or is it better if your site renders in browsers and you spent that extra time and money to create more content?
  • Is it better if you created all the content yourself? Or is it better if you paid writers to create it?
  • Is it better if you sell your own product? Or is it better if you sell ad space?
  • Is it better if your links are all organic? Or is it better if you bought a few topically related trusted links?
  • Is it better if you rank your own site? Or is it better to buy an ad on an authoritative site and rank that page?

You learn more by doing things yourself, but you can't learn and do everything if you are trying to make a scalable business. All those points of distinction are arbitrary. Every market is gamed, and so long as your methods work it doesn't matter how you got there as long as you didn't have to hurt others to do so.

After you are profitable and growing, for many projects it makes sense to outsource tasks, including:

  • website design

  • content creation
  • ad sales
  • maybe even initial marketing, by buying old websites

Thinking that you have to do everything from scratch means that you are going to run into scale issues much quicker than a competitor who believes in outsourcing will. Once you consider opportunity cost, doing everything yourself becomes far less appealing.

Elite Retreat Was Fun

Elite Retreat just finished, and I think this one was even more fun than the last one. Wendy and Kris both blogged it. Thanks to everyone who attended and spoke.

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