Search Engines as Affiliates + Publishers

May 25th

Consumer Finance

Google recently unveiled Google Advisor, which ties together the concept of Google Comparison Ads with a better looking interface.

"With Google Advisor, you enter information about what you’re looking for in a mortgage, credit card, CD, or checking and savings account."

And unlike Google comparison ads, Google is caching these pages

When you add in BeatThatQuote, AdWords, Google affiliate network, Google ads that filter content clicks through to search ads, and AdSense there are at least 6 different ways for Google to sniff data on & monetize the consumer financial product market. And that is if you don't count branded display ads on YouTube as another option.

Fashion

If you go into the fashion market Google has AdWords, Product Ads, AdSense, the Google affiliate network, Boutiques.com & branded Youtube ads. Like.com, which Google purchased in part to build Boutiques.com, also remains a live website & yet another way for Google to taste the fashion market.

Videos / Movies

While Youtube was originally against displaying ads before videos, now that they have huge marketshare they are going to push front-loaded ads harder. Youtube offers a movie store & provides links to MP3s near music.

Books

In books Google has Product ads, AdWords, AdSense, and their ebook marketplace. As soon as Google opened up their ebook store they began ranking their books highly in the "organic" search results

In addition to ranking those ebook pages well in the organic search results, Google also offers a vertical book filter

Travel

With flight search Google has ran tests where it looked like they were putting affiliate links directly in the "organic" search results. Their most recent flight search result test has an extended option which puts the organic results below the fold.

Google is monetizing the "organic" results on the hotel front, offering hotel price ads, coupons, and suggesting that at some point they might price ads in a cost per booking affiliate model.

Mobile/Local

In any vertical Google can offer local refinement to get a taste of more of the end user data.

On mobile phones Google can leverage click to call, their local "offers" in addition to using geotargeted AdWords ads. They can even use a person looking up directions as a relevancy signal!

According to Google insiders, mobile operating systems can be used to club "partners" over the head with compatibility requirements. And Google has taken advantage of that opportunity well enough that telecoms are complaining about net neutrality issues amongst the software platforms. As the saying goes, bundling is evil, unless it is Google bundling. ;)

General Commerce Integration

In addition to AdWords, AdSense, Product Ads, product search, merchant reviews & their general web index, Google is trying to pull in information from the offline world. They are set to announce a mobile payment system with the ability to include coupons:

For Google, the system could help boost its digital advertising business. The planned payment system would allow Google to offer retailers more data about their customers and help the retailers target ads and discount offers to mobile-device users near their stores, these people said. Google, which hopes to sell ads and discount offers to the local merchants, isn't expected to get a cut of the transaction fees.

In addition to receiving targeted ads or discount offers, users could manage credit-card accounts and track spending, loyalty points and other things through applications on their smartphones.

Google also invests in technologies that blend ads in content, like VigLink:

tools will allow publishers that opt-in to insert new links automatically into their content, rather them finding the links themselves.
...
Roup said one of the biggest misconceptions that marketers have begins with Google's disapproval of the affiliate marketing model. Google does not have an issue with affiliate marketing, but rather, with marketers trying to buy page rank -- or links that are paid but try to fool the consumer and appear as unpaid, Roup explains. "Our links are financially motivated, so they don't convert page rank, but neither do any other affiliate links," he said.

Google, which claims that you need to disclose any form of paid links in human & machine readable formats now invests in automated paid links, with blurred & inconsistent levels of disclosure. See for yourself.

Other Vertical Projects

Google can make minor design tweaks to their productivity suite and then launch it under any label they like, from project management to wedding planning.

Monetizing Dirty Markets

Google set aside a half-billion Dollars to settle an issue with the US Department of Justice over selling bogus online prescription drug ads. Google was repeatedly warned over the practice, but rode it until they got caught in a sting operation. Likewise, their general "AdWords advertisers selling counterfeit products" was over 50,000 strong by the time Google finally shut them down. And the whole time Google was recommending searchers search for things like "warez" & "serials," a practice which they finally stopped based on regulatory pressure.

In dirty ad markets where illegal goods & services are pushed Google can (and does) monetize them at the general ad network level until they cause public relations issues, allowing Google to capture a large portion of the reward with minimal risk.

Google can get to know you a bit better & monetize literally anything.

While Google claims ad disclosure is important, they can "accidentally" leave it off when convenient. I just recently saw the following ad served by Google's DoubleClick. I have no idea what it was promoting though, as I was afraid to click on it.

It's Not Just Google

Obviously I mentioned Google because they are the most successful search company. However, Google is not the only search company monetizing their organic search results & pushing results below the fold.

Ask monetizes their "organic" results via a variety of cross-promotional results.

Yahoo! has custom "organic" ad units & intends to further monetize search with their Search Direct offering.

Bing, which has remained fairly clean, also offers promotional vertical results in their organic search results.

As search engines take big slices out of their search ecosystems, the gap between winners & losers will only grow.

The (Sub)Human Network

May 23rd

The New York Times has an interesting article about Cisco's roll in the Great Firewall of China + more:

Cisco, the maker of Internet routing gear, customized its technology to help China track members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, according to a federal lawsuit filed last week by members of the movement.

The lawsuit, which relies on internal sales materials, also said that Cisco had tried to market its equipment to the Chinese government by using inflammatory language that stemmed from the Maoist Cultural Revolution.

And that from a company which promotes itself using the label "the human network."

And how did Cisco react when the above information became public? "When evidence of the company’s activities in China became public in 2008 through a leaked PowerPoint presentation, Cisco disassociated itself from the marketing materials, stating that they were the work of a low-level employee."

That is what big brands do. The PR team steps in and says "Oops it was a rogue marketer/trader/monkey/employee who was smoking crack at work and they have now been fired. We were ignorant of our actions but we really care about people. We promise to not (get caught) doing it again!" TM

As Google pushes to make the web more corporate, it is worth taking a step back and considering what that means for "the human network."

Google likes to pretend that something is good just because it is a big brand, but many big brands have big ad budgets *precisely* because their business model contains hidden costs. For instance: bad faith insurance which takes your money as long as you pay & then disappears the minute something goes wrong.

The legal system granted large corporations more rights than human beings. Not because they are any better, but because they are more corrupt. I bet many Google engineers are disappointed to see Google following suit & taking the easy way out. Spy & personalize. And when in doubt, brand, brand, brand. ;)

With the vast potential of the web should we settle for making it as corrupt (or more corrupt) than the real world?

The following song is brought to you by the Facebook "like" spy button. ;)

Upgrading to Firefox 4

Mar 23rd

Firefox 4 was just released. It is much smoother & faster than prior versions of the browser. And the persistent memory leaking issue seems to have been tamed, even with many extensions installed. Overall an awesome upgrade. I can see this once again becoming my main web browser while also remaining my primary SEO research browser.

With the upgrade I only had 2 major issues

In time we will likely think about moving the icons for Rank Checker and SEO for Firefox out of the status bar & into the upper menu, as it is not great for us to create extensions that are reliant on another extension which is then reliant on a browser that changes too ... too many moving parts.

But for now stuff works well enough again if you download the Status 4 Evar plug-in, something over 10,000 people a day are doing!

We also just updated the documentation on the plug-in download & upgrade pages for our extensions such that those who do not read our blog still know what they need to do in order to keep everything going smoothly. It also prevents us from having to read too many support tickets like these gems a crazy gave us today, which helps us maintain at least a bit of hope for humanity. :)

In moderation such messages are humorous...but you just hope that the person isn't crazy enough to hunt you down and shoot you because they think Yahoo! is a superior browser to Firefox. Not for the least of reasons because Yahoo! isn't a web browser! :D

Download IE9

Mar 16th

If Microsoft used their primary product to bundle other free products they were giving away to gain market leverage Google would hoot and/or holler. Google demanded that Chrome be shown as an option in Europe when Microsoft was required to market their competitors via BrowserChoice.eu.

Yet if you visit YouTube with an old browser you can see that Google claims it isn't an advertisement, yet somehow Internet Explorer didn't make the short list.

IE9 launched as a solid product with great reviews and enhanced privacy features.

A new version of Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer to be released Tuesday will be the first major Web browser to include a do-not-track tool that helps people keep their online habits from being monitored.

Microsoft's decision to include the tool in Internet Explorer 9 means Google Inc. and Apple Inc. are the only big providers of browsers that haven't yet declared their support for a do-no-track system in their products.

I have long been a fan of using multiple web browsers for different tasks. Perhaps the single best reason to use IE9 is that a large segment of your customer base will be using it. Check out how search is integrated into the browser and use it as a keyword research tool.

The second best reason to use it is that sending some usage data to Microsoft will allow them to improve their search relevancy to better compete with Google. As a publisher I don't care who wins in search, so much as I want the marketshare to be split more evenly, such that if Panda II comes through there is less risk to webmasters. Stable ecosystems allow aggressive investment in growth, whereas unstable ones retard it.

Speaking of Google, Michael Gray recently wrote: "They are the virtual drug dealers of the 21st century, selling ads wrapped around other people’s content, creating information polluted ghettos, and they will become the advertising equivalent of a drug lord poised to rule the web."

The problem with Google's ecosystem was not only that it was running fast and loose (hence the need for the content farm update, a problem Google created, and a solution which had major collateral damage along with some unintended consequences, while missing the folks who were public enemy #1).

Beyond that, Google recently announced the ability for you to report counterfeit products advertised in AdWords. Their profit margins are pretty fat. Why did the problem go ignored so long? Why does the solution require you to work for Google for free?

In the following video, Matt winces, as though he might have an issue with what he is saying. "We take our advertising business very seriously as well. Both our commitment to delivering the best possible audience for advertisers, and to only show ads that you really want to see." - Matt Cutts

How does this relate to Internet Explorer 9? Well let's look at what sort of ads Google is running:

I am not sure if that is legal. But even if it is, it is low brow & sleazier than Google tries to portray their brand as being.

If Microsoft did the same thing you know Google would cry. Ultimately I think Google's downfall will be them giving Microsoft carte blanche to duplicate their efforts. Microsoft has deep pockets, fat margins, and is rapidly buying search marketshare. If Microsoft can use their browser as a storefront (like Google does) they have much greater marketshare than Chrome has.

Cory Doctorow's excellent essay "Beware the spyware model of technology – its flaws are built in" is a great read & warns where the above approach leads.

Skyrocket Your Productivity by Trimming the Fat

Mar 3rd

If the Google Farmer update doesn't show you the unfortunate amount of low-quality noise in the SEO industry then there is no hope for you young jedi. :)

It's not unlike the unbelievable noise that surrounds an upcoming Apple product launch. In the interest of full disclosure I happen to be an Apple-ite but the coverage is even nauseating to me.

My poor RSS reader and my Twitter stream came under siege these last few days with the ramp up to the iPad 2 launch and the Google algo update.

This inspired me, after hitting the delete button about 432 times in my RSS and scrubbing the Twitter list, to sit back and review how I consume information, where I consume it from, and who is really worth "my time".

Repeat, Re-tweet, Rinse

Technology blogs and SEO blogs are much different in terms of the availability of content that can be churned out on a daily basis, as you know. There is so much more to choose from with tech but there still is this herd mentality which leads to someone saying "The iPad 2 will have a camera" 15 different ways.

With SEO, it is pretty tough to churn out daily content that is:

  • without a lot of conjecture
  • accurate
  • thought-provoking
  • worthy of your time

Sure, SEO changes like any other industry but sometimes you read some of these blogs and you have to wonder how much factual, data-driven information goes into the content? Or is the point stretched to a level where any independent analysis would torch the theory in a matter of minutes?

Show Me The Money!

Something I starting doing a bit before this wake up call which is now helping me whittle down what I am consuming, was to make notes of techniques or tips that were mentioned (noting the source) then implementing those tips while watching to see whether they made any difference (positive or negative).

Also, try and pay attention to trend predictions and industry predictions.

The ones that are usually spot on are probably worth more of your time

One thing I noticed while doing that was some of the information was simply being either re-tweeted, or republished with thin commentary, or referenced with essentially the same content but spun a different way with different industry language.

The problem was that many of the blogs or sites occasionally had a good point or three but the vast majority were just kind of "meh". I don't mean that in a disparaging way but I think if the goal of the writer is to publish frequently then so be it, but it isn't a necessity in my opinion and it can actually hurt the quality of the content if the writer feels like daily or semi-hourly publishing is required of them.

I figure that if you are going to spend time reading or paying attention to someone, you ought to pay attention to how often you skim over their stuff versus how often you actually read it and benefit from it.

Authors That Branch Out

As SEO becomes more and more a part of a holistic view of marketing your business or site, it might be a good move to look at people who can write intelligently about SEO as well as what else goes into web marketing. Things like:

  • tool reviews
  • web design and/or development
  • using popular cms frameworks
  • domain buying, selling, and domain names
  • social media
  • and the many other things a typical SEO or webmaster might be interested in

I'll give you one of my favorite blogs to read (outside of SeoBook of course :D ), Michael Gray AKA Graywolf over at Wolf-Howl.Com. His blog covers many aspects of the web marketing industry and has provided me with some extremely useful advice and tips.

Looking at the homepage of the site today he's covering Raven SEO Tools, How to Choose a Domain Name, a review of a Social Media tool, some Facebook tips for small and local businesses, and a couple of posts on SEO factors.

It's a solid example of a really well-rounded blog which gives actionable information, tips, and strong opinions.

A site that I like as sort of an all in one solution is Search Engine Land. Solid news round ups, excellent guest writers, and a group in tune to what's going on in the world of search marketing.

Many of you might subscribe to these ones already, but if not you should take a peek. :)

Do They Have Something (of value) to Say?

Twitter is probably the worst in terms of noise if you don't engage in some strategic filtering or unfollowing. A stream can quickly get littered with a bunch of RT's with posts about how nice the weather is outside.

Don't get me wrong, I don't mind the personal or non-work tweets (in fact sometimes they are a nice break from the monotony of the day as a webmaster) but if you notice that the person you are following is basically a re-tweet machine then it might be time to move on.

The nature of the web and social media present a way for you to interact with other folks in your industry in a way which makes it seem like you are bosom buddies with your (fill in a number) followers on Twitter, or people you interact within a community.

The hard, sobering fact is that quite a few people have nothing to say professionally that really is of any true business value to you (and why would you care what they are doing over the weekend?).

There are thought leaders in every space who consistently put out good stuff, but thought leaders are few and far in between. We live in a superficial, ME ME ME, celebrity world.

People want to be heard, seen, adored, revered, etc. It's really easy to spot thought leaders but you also have to be able to weed through people who look like thought leaders just because they have a high Twitter follower count.

It's easy to separate out noise though. Pay attention to who you are reading and following and really look at how much you are learning from that person or group.

A Cleansed List & a Productive Day

I ended up cutting my RSS feeds by quite a bit, probably around 70% if I quickly look at the numbers. I follow a few SEO-centric blogs as well as some PPC blogs, a few Local SEO blogs, Google & Bing blogs, blogs specific to tools that I use, and some general business blogs/feeds.

I'm not a big Twitter user, because after the celebs/corporations/internet marketers/bots there is little left. Diversity is good, overwhelming noise is not.

You could spend all day reading theories or re-spun posts instead of getting the information from the cream of the crop and putting that data into action for your business. Some of the spots I no longer read weren't re-publishing houses but they simply didn't bring enough to the table consistently to warrant an investment of *my* time.

What about your time? Are you giving it away to places that do not deserve it?

The Joys of a Scott Richter Moment

Feb 24th

When I went to sleep last night all was well. When I woke up my inbox was exploded with angry emails about people getting dozens and dozens of emails from us...in some cases perhaps almost 100. Since we put the new design live on the site I think people are more receptive to it. And there are not many Drupal websites which have more registered users than our site does. The combination of improved usability (in some areas, still working on others), better design, and a fairly strong rate of growth in popularity have caused us to hit a bit of a breaking point.

Some of the plugins for Drupal work solidly up to a point. But everything has limits. Servers, software, etc.

When you use technology sometimes it breaks. And never at a good time!

We were getting ready to fully launch our membership site publicly, but we just had a bit of a meltdown.

I think what happened was that our autoresponder was emailing the first x people & then it would reset without ticking that the day was done and those same people would get pounded with the same exact emails again. That cycle sorta looked like this

We are still troubleshooting the autoresponder issue to fix it, but while we are troubleshooting it of course we have to turn it off. (The first step to fixing any problem is to stop digging & stop making it worse)!

But while the autoresponder is turned off, it breaks the autoresponder unsubscribe links.

So it is a pretty crappy deal no matter what we do. Even if we used something like Mailchimp going forward, it still wouldn't fix the issue from yesterday.

Lose/lose, so you get to see the rudest behavior in the world and chastised. Fun stuff. If a person is intentionally sending email spam of course they would vary the message, not do it from an account that they actually answer replies on, etc. But people assume the worst because most people get burned by scammy get-rich-quick stuff before they find their way to quality SEO information.

Anyhow, the autoresponder is off until we troubleshoot it. Sorry about the bulk emails. And I can only imagine what Scott Richter's inbox must look like! Lucky for him he doesn't actually read it. ;)

We run a fairly lean business & rely on giving away a ton of stuff to do our marketing for us to attract customers. Rather than bulking up on sales staff we decided to be lean and efficient. If a person wants a sales call to try to squeeze a free consult we say no thanks. This model has worked decently well for us, but whenever anything breaks it sucks because we don't have tons of slack built into our business.

The bright side of the issue is this: even though a minority of people who responded cursed, most people were actually surprisingly polite given how annoying that autoresponder repeat was. And while there are all sorts of food riots in the Middle East & countries collapsing, I feel a bit lucky to have myself as my biggest problem & to be able to run a site with so many great members who give us the benefit of the doubt when I shoot myself (and everyone else) in the foot. ;)

Thanks guys!

Free SEOBook Wordpress Theme

Feb 3rd

Since switching over our site design some folks have asked us what we were doing with the old design.

I spoke with Chris Pearson (of Thesis fame) who made our old site design and he said it was cool if I turned it into a free Wordpress theme. And given the number of folks liked our old site design enough to use it without permission, we decided that we may as well turn the theme into a free Wordpress theme, so that everyone can benefit from it.

Theme Preview

Here is an image of what the theme looks like

Download It Now

You can download the theme here.

Editing The Logo

Currently the theme shows the old SEO Book logo in it (as logo.gif in the theme's files). You can easily change that out with a custom logo from the likes of 99designs, CrowdSPRING, or Logo Design Works.

A couple notes of caution with that:

  • The dimensions of the current logo are 720 wide by a height of 154 pixels. If you change the height of the logo then you would want to adjust the height of the space above the top navigation. Currently the header div has a height of 173px, so it is set to logo height + 19 pixels.
  • If you order a logo you may want to color match it to the existing site design colors. For your convenience, there is a color swatch to the right & you can grab HTML colors using an extension like ColorZilla. The HTLML color code for the green is roughly #9bdc1d and the blue is roughly #5bacd8 (though both have a bit of gradient to them).

Editing the Site's Colors

Given the reliance on white in the design, it is fairly easy to change the design's colors simply by changing the color of a few images in the design. You can replace the green and blue with a wide variety of colors and still have it look good. I believe we did red and gray on PPC Blog for a while and it looked pretty good. This tool is a good tool for making gradient images. Then you can use something like SnagIt to size the images similar to the old design's images. Of course Photoshop experts should have no problems with editing the colors either. ;)

Editing the Site's Width

The white content area with a white page background makes it easy to change the theme's width in the CSS if you are pretty knowledgeable about CSS. The divs are pretty easy to understand. Container wraps around the content area. Each post div is within the content div & the sidebar is named sidebar. :)

General Disclaimers & Whatnot

First and foremost, since the theme is free it does not come with any sort of support. If you have doubts or concerns with using it then we suggest testing it out on a secondary site & customizing it as needed before putting it on your primary website.

Although we are an SEO website, I do not claim that the theme is "SEO optimized" or anything like that. As a best practice, I believe there is value in making the page titles and post titles different from each other (especially in light of this). But that best practice is not something Wordpress does by default.

There are a wide variety of other themes & Wordpress plugins that offer more granular SEO control. When using a theme like this one on our sites then typically we would use SEO title tag and a related posts plugin to help with SEO. If we are aiming for a fairly flat site structure then we would show excerpts on archive pages and use a different posts per page plugin to put something like 100 posts on each category page. But there are many other themes and plugins that do those sorts of things.

The template has a credit link in it. I would prefer you leave that there so others can find out how to get the theme, but if you do need to remove it all I ask is that you instead link to a charity you believe in & donate whatever you can to that charity. :)

Why Did We Switch Site Designs Here?

The above design was live on our site for nearly 5 years. And I would have kept rolling with it if our site didn't become so complex. One of the leading complaints about our old site was how navigation was inconsistent in different parts of the site.

The site started off as a blog which happened to sell an ebook, but over time as it grew to have dozens of tools, 100+ training modules, thousands of blog posts, etc. Given all the various user rolls and login permissions it was important for us to tighten up our navigation and make it more consistent (with the use of sitewide drop downs and such). I plan on using our old design on a few of our other websites that are less complex and more bloggy. And I hope you like it too! :)

Should You Use Third Party Logins?

Jan 31st

There are pushes to minimize the need for passwords, but after the Gawker leak fiasco who wants to have a common shared single point of failure for passwords? Sure managing passwords sucks. But friction is a tool that helps cleanse demand & make it more pure. It is why paid communities have a higher signal to noise ratio than free for all sites. Any barriers will annoy people, but those same barriers will also prevent some people from wasting your time. If they are not willing to jump through any hoops they were never going to pull out the credit card.

37 Signals recently announced they were retiring their support of Open ID. At the opposite end of the spectrum, eHow just announced they are requiring Facebook logins:

We have some exciting news to share about eHow.com. Beginning in February 2011, Facebook Login will be the exclusive means for login to the site. You’ll be able to use your new or existing Facebook username and password to connect with the eHow community. We’ll also be removing eHow member profiles to help you streamline friend lists and eliminate the work of managing multiple online accounts. Additionally, we’ll be closing forums on the site. We want to hear from you directly, so moving forward, we encourage you to communicate us through the “Contact Us” section of eHow.com.

We’re excited to introduce these updates! Get started and click on the Facebook Connect button in the upper right corner of the home page to login. We want to keep in touch, so also remember to Fan Us.

My guess is they might be trying to diversify their traffic stream away from search & gain broader general awareness to further legitimize their site. But the big risk to them is that Facebook is an ad network. So now competing sites will be able to market at their base of freelance employees. What's worse, is that there was a rumor that Facebook might plan to launch a content mill strategy. There are plenty of ways for that third party login to backfire.

My believe is that you shouldn't force logins until you have something to offer, but that when you do you should manage the relationship directly. Does that mean you have to reply to every message? No. But it does mean that if there are ways to enhance value through how you interact with your established relationships you are not stuck under the TOS of a 3rd party website which may compete against you at some point. Sure that means some upgrades will be painful, but it means that you get to chose when you do upgrades rather than letting someone else chose when your website breaks for you.

I view third party comment systems the same way. If the person providing the service changes business model it does not mean you are stuck paying whatever rate they want or starting over. This is one of the big advantages of owning your own domain name and using open source content management systems. You don't have to worry about a Ning pivot or a Geocities shut down. Sure this approach means you have to deal with security, but then leaving that sort of stuff to Facebook might not be great anyhow.

Google Approaches Its Breaking Point

Jan 19th

Google's Take On SEOs

Google likes to make SEOs look like fools. Some are, but some are simply privy to less information. Or, in some cases, thrown under the bus by a new wave editorial policy in the gray area. Inconsistent enforcement is a major issue, but even if you go beyond that, the truth is most businesses have a range of revenue streams from pure as can be to entirely parasitic.

Google is Sleazier Than Microsoft

Recently we saw Matt Cutts play investigative reporter & literally create a story about how dirty some of Bing's affiliates are. Here is the litmus test though: when Microsoft became aware of it they immediately canned the shady distribution partner. Meanwhile, Google still funds toolbars that put AdSense ads in them AND to this day Google still funds google.bearshare.com, which *is* driven by the same kinds of home page changes that Matt found distasteful.

In Manufacturing Consent Noam Chomsky highlights that we should judge actions based on an equality of principals & that we are responsible primarily for our own actions. Yet Google complains about Microsoft. It took Microsoft less than a day to clean up their act, while Google still hasn't fixed issues that were highlighted publicly 6 years ago!

Many Subjective Warnings

Not only is Google trying to police their competitors, but recently they have offered warnings on all sorts of subjective issues, like...

Individually, each of those issues can be debated.

In our new site design our navigation is aggressively repetitive in some areas. The reason we did that was some people complained about not being able to effectively get around the site. To help make the navigation more intuitive and consistent we use drop downs and in some cases have 3 or 4 or even 5 links to the same location. Is that optimal from a search perspective? Probably not. But then again, search engines don't convert into paying customers. They are simply a conduit...a means to an end. When an engineer views a site they might not view it through the same lens as a customer would.

What is an unnatural link profile? Does it depend on who is building the links? We know that at an SEO conference when some of IAC's cross linking was highlighted Matt Cutts stated "those don't count" but didn't qualify it any further. Likewise when it was highlighted how Mahalo was link farming we were told that they deserved the benefit of the doubt. Since then the link farms have grown and mutated. I won't link at ask.inc.com/when-should-i-hire-a-company-for-lead-generation, but if I was told that the following is "natural" and "good to go" then I would have no problems building a few million links a week. Then again, I bet it would be "unnatural" if I did the same thing.

The part about treating Googlebot different from users is a bit perplexing. As technology has evolved this area has become quite blurry/murky.

  • Sometimes when clicking into big media sites that are 'first click free' I get kicked right to a registration page. In the past some iTunes pages would rank & force you into the iTunes software (though that may have recently changed).
  • Google ranks certain Youtube content in international markets, even where said content is unavailable.
  • Scroll cloaking has been around forever.
  • Tools like Google Website Optimizer can be used to alter user experience significantly.
  • There is an SEO start up which pushes search visitors to sites like CNN to a heavily ad wrapped & paginated version of the same content.
  • I accidentally screwed up using a rel=canonical on a page (cut the source code from a dynamic page and pasted it as the basis for a similar static page & forgot to remove the rel=canonical tag). Eventually I figured out what was wrong & fixed it, but both the correct and incorrect pages ranked for weeks at #1 and #2. And isn't the whole point of the rel=canonical tag to give the search engines a different type of header than an end user (telling the search engine that the content is elsewhere while telling the user nothing of the sort)?

But which of those is a problem? None of them? All of them? Does it depend on who you ask? Does it depend on perceived intent? And that is the tricky part because the same impact can be had with many different tools like 301 redirects, meta refreshes, javascript redirects, and rel=canonical. Should they penalize the technique, the intent, or the result? How do they imply intent?

Relevancy vs Market Manipulation

Spam is in the eye of the beholder, as is relevancy.

The thing is, Google is in a position to imply intent as they see fit. They are in a position to tilt the playing table as they see fit. They claim to be open and sometimes they are fighting the good fight, but businesses have a range of revenue streams from pure as can be to entirely parasitic.

The leaked internal Google documents about copyright and ads on trademarks certainly highlight that Google has no problem with a foot in each pond.

Syndication has long been a part of the media landscape, where portals chose what bits to mix in from where. But how much is fine & what should be done with duplicates? When does something go from 'legitimate syndication' to 'overt spam'? We see official Google blog posts which claim that AdSense ads are not allowed on unoriginal content, while Google has multiple large partners that wrap Google's search results in the AdSense feed and then serve it back to Google. Site categories which were described as 'shoot on sight' become viable enterprises when a person puts a web 2.0 design, venture capital & some public relations into the same basic business model. If Google is going to put out some 'thou shalt not' styled commandments under the label of 'fact vs fiction' they should have consistent enforcement of obvious issues that have been brought up publicly numerous times, including on the very post highlighting the policy. But we know they won't! They only care about dirty business practices if they are not getting a taste of the revenue stream (as shown by their BearShare partnership while policing Bing affiliates).

Based on that sort of activity, when Google announces a preference while promoting "openness" it is easy to see it as a step backward, hypocritical, or even as a farce. Embrace, extend, extinguish.

As Google pushes more to advertise itself on its ad network it is no surprise that they were eventually forced to disclose payout percentages. But it took a lawsuit to do it.

After purchasing Youtube Google rolled out their universal search & was fine with aggressively promoting Youtube over other video services. Only recent government reviews have pushed Google to give 3rd party services a fair shake, but the network effects and lead are likely already too great to overcome.

Due to past search bias, Google might get blocked out of completing the ITA deal. The good news going forward for publishers is due to increasing regulatory heat Google will only go after a small number of verticals where they payouts are huge. The regulatory blowback will be too great for them to try to be all things to all people.

When Google's head spam fighter is doing public relations AND the Washington Post covers his lobbying you know Google is nearing a breaking point.

What Does a Spammer Do?

Dec 13th

Relevancy

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

Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better

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

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

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

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

Are 'Spammers' Relevant?

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

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

Who Promotes Inferior Product?

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

You know who else does that?

Google.

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

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

What is the real reason Google hates spammers?

Competition.

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

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

Richard Nixon's Take on Google

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

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

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

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