The Joys of a Scott Richter Moment

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

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?

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

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?

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. ;)

TripAdvisor Tells Google Places to Go Take a Hike

As Google creates a thin review layer to displace some of the directories they are driving into bankruptcy, some of the wiser middle men are telling Google to go get stuffed. TripAdvisor reviews disappeared from Google Place pages due to a technical issue, but then they stayed disappeared due to TripAdvisor passing on Google's generous offer to borrow their content & use it to replace them in the search ecosystem:

Google is no longer able to stream in reviews from TripAdvisor to Places pages after the user review giant blocked it.

TripAdvisor confirmed the move today in an email, stating that while it continues to evaluate recent changes to Google Places it believes the user does not benefit with the “experience of selecting the right hotel”.

“As a result, we have currently limited TripAdvisor content available on those pages,” an official says.

As Google spreads into a B2C player & tries to offer up suggestions for everything the top market leaders in many big markets (like Yelp & TripAdvisor) will tell them to screw off. However, players 2 through x will be desperate enough for exposure that they are driven by short term thinking. Google's ebook news mentioned that software is in place to do bundled deals to sell hard copies with the electronic versions. And just look at the direct to consumer marketing Google is doing in Japan.

Eventually market leaders will be offered concessions for deals, or Google will partner with lower placed businesses to slowly wear down the advantage of market leaders with a slow water torture treatment. But for now TripAdvisor stands on its own.

The positive news for Google in this is that the search results offer a wide range of excellent hiking boots for Googlers to choose from :D

Google's Media Empire

Open = Good

For years Google has championed the concept of an open web. Some took it as an altruistic sign, while others thought it was a convenient angle to commoditize complimentary business models.

Google pushed for net neutrality but made wireless connections an exception. Why would they do that? Could it be they are invested in disrupting that market elsewhere?

The Rise of Brand as a Signal of Trust

As Google started to reach the bulk of potential returns based on direct response they started to lean on brands as a signal of quality & recommend brands more in their search results. When you search for Amazon you might get 8 or 9 links from the official site & even on some generic keywords Google recommends associated brands.

Why Brand Creates a Sustainable Advantage

When you think about what brand is, it is a mental shorthand for a concept. It leads to increased recall, fatter sustained profit margins, and thus the ability to spend more on marketing. If Google is to put more weight on reviews and look at sentiment analysis then of course that will benefit the larger players who invested into establishing positive associations, even at a young age. The results of such branding efforts are quite powerful.

And even moreso if you don't use them for evil, Pepsi! :D

Affiliates Are Evil, Except When They Are Named Google

In the past Google has positioned that affiliates are evil (the body language says it all IMHO), though there are Google's remote quality rater documents which provide further proof to anyone with lingering doubts.

As Google is becoming the affiliate they are getting direct signals into what consumers like most & are able to serve them a personalized recommendation engine. New extended ad formats & using location data will allow Google to further drive down the organic results.

Free Traffic For Free Data, for a While

Not only does Google sell CPA priced product ads on their search results, but they also allow your Google Base account to drive additional product links, which gives them over 150 million products to advertise. The name of the game is to give Google a bit more data to get a higher clickthrough rate & thus have a higher quality score & be enabled for additional profitable opportunities sold at below fair market rates. That seems like a free lunch and works great, up until the day Google decides to use the aggregate data to compete directly against you. ;)

Google now runs a thin affiliate site in Boutiques.com. Google's ability to recommend consumption behaviors not only impacts ecommerce, but every type of media in the world. They control the ad rates of various advertisers & can create custom ad integration opportunities.

Google's Role in Media Consumption

Youtube offers related videos, a never-ending personalized streaming service in LeanBack and ads which users can select from.

When Google started scanning books it was supposed to be for search, rather than to have ebooks for sale. A couple lawsuits later and today Google finally opened up their ebook marketplace.

One of the leading features of Google's 'open' marketplace is DRM: "Publishers can choose whether or not to lock down their books with DRM. Google also says it will have a strict privacy policy that forbids it from using your book buying habits to advertise to, or profile readers." If you are outside of the United States the store is simply unavailable. That same article states that "Google hopes to layer on social features into the service in the near-future and says the infrastructure is in place to let people buy both a digital and paper copy of a book in a bundle."

Would that be Google moving from pushing bits & people to pushing physical products?

Clean Up on Aisle 3

Google announced their copyright "improvements" in front of the Viacom vs Youtube copyright lawsuit appeal.

Meanwhile Google is the same company which published this & recommends keygens and serials when you search for a brand. Google promises to fix that later issue - something that has only took them a few YEARS to do, even though they were blocking porn words (& other words that could have earned them negative press) much sooner.

In much the same way that Google has captured most of the revenue streams they will be able to with direct response ads, I think they realize that they will need to work better at managing property rights of big media & other publishers if they really want to drive brand advertising revenues. This will likely lead to a decline of the "anything goes" web.

From 'Anything Goes' to Respecting Property Rights

The whole reason Google was so liberal in their approach to supporting (and even funding) copyright violation it was so that they could weaken the positions of the companies that hold those rights, such that Google can eventually negotiate a deal with them. But the main thing holding back Google music is that based on Google's past performance the labels do not trust the idea of a digital music locker hosted by Google. After all, Google AdSense ads are what allow sites dedicated to downloading MP3s from Youtube to be monetized today.

Google offers promotional links on Youtube & knows how much money they are missing out on. Google's boondoggle of using public relations to paint a clean show publicly while using legal loopholes to circumvent the intent of the law was good for getting them into a strong market position, but if they want to have a leadership position in more big media markets they will need to get buy in from established players.

Google wants to get big into television ads. And that is going to mean having better respect for copyright. To some degree as we see the Google business model change we will see their approach of "paying anyone to steal anything & wrap it in Google ads" (to soften up copyright) change to a model where the put themselves as a gatekeeper on DRM content & push the "official" sources of the media (and try to make a cut of the profits). Already on Youtube if you view certain content from outside the United States they will tell you that it is unavailable in your area.

Google's first video store was a complete failure. Once again they are pushing hard on video with Google TV & by buying the DRM company widevine. Big media companies have opted out of Google TV awaiting more favorable deals.

Part of such deals will ultimately rely on backroom payouts coupled with hard coded promotions. There will be a lot of collateral damage as entire categories become unprofitable for those who do not have direct access. I think we are seeing the organic search results take a page from the ad book: pay to play.

Google's old model of paying people to scrape content & wrap it in ads was leading to a market for lemons, where the top ranked piece of text might often be seen as relevant, but certainly wasn't useful.

This transition was driven by a watering down of online content through Gresham's theorem. Much like how the most fraudulent banks could afford to buy out less fraudulent ones, and how Chinese milk with melamine was cheaper than real milk sent real companies into bankruptcy, the search results were suffering from the age of scrape/mash/publish. Given the surrounding economic forces crushing newspapers, Google was making things worse than they needed to be.

Those who are creating original high-quality content have real business costs. Google paying scraper sites like Mahalo and Ask to borrow your content & wrap it in ads means that you are sometimes getting outranked for scraped duplications of your own content. That drives down publisher margins and pushes marginally profitable publishers into losing money, and eventually, bankruptcy.

Google news has been described as a sewage factory plagued with nefarious players & is now undergoing clean up as well.

What Are You the Official Source For?

Slowly but surely the search results will fill up with official hotel sites, official music sources, official video sources, official ebook sources, etc etc etc ... with Google putting a big foot on the gas & accepting whatever cut they can get. If they want to avoid regulatory scrutiny they need to work with the official sources (which are every bit as politically connected as Google is).

As that shift happens the longtail spam model will lose out on its profitability because it will be forced to compete with higher quality content that is automatically mixed into the search results. (The whole point of universal search was to allow Google to short cut certain types of information right into the core search results...as they start making money from micro-payments and such look for that trend to accelerate).

Ultimately what has doomed most portals was that they were willing to produce second rate holder stuff that filled out a vertical and was 'good enough.' What makes Google so powerful with the stealth backdoor portal approach is that it allows them to mix 3rd party content without forcing them to either absorb the cost or create low quality backfill stuff on their own. As they have success with 1 partner that creates the narrative which brings other folks to the negotiation table.

One area that is ripe for ad innovations is books:

I’m genuinely glad to have Google enter this market because it will be reaching potential customers at a unique point in their book-buying journey: at the point of web search, not at the point of searching the bookstore. This means many things you didn’t realize a book can help you with—overcoming depression, remodeling a bathroom, making friends and influencing people—will now be surfaced alongside all the YouTube and other results Google will offer. This is a net plus for books.

But the ultimate effect of Google e-books, if Google knows what’s good for it, will be the creation of an ad-supported publishing model.

Now that books are digital & Google has rights to sell them, I would expect in the next year or 2 that Google starts to display them in the organic search results more aggressively. The free samples can be monetized via ads & upsells of the whole book. That endless stream of editorially vetted content could put a dent in the content farm business model.

Freetards

The Golden Rule

The golden rule: "Treat others as you would like to be treated."

A subset of that is: "If you don't have something nice to say... don't say anything at all."

What the Golden Rule Misses

That is a guiding rule which generally helps people prevent themselves from wasting time and/or causing an issue by offending someone. But there are a few things that are missed by that rule:

  • It is easy to tell someone not to internalize stuff, but the truth is if you don't respond at all then over time those sorts of people can start to wear you down
  • If you do not respond to someone they may think they are correct & then spread their misinformation further, as some of them attribute a lack of response to "the smoking gun."
  • Some consider bluntness to be impolite, however the alternative is the destruction of the English language.

The Rise of Enraged Consumers

With the rise of social media there is a rise of consumers feeling empowered to threaten, extort, and slander businesses. The media goes so far as training consumers to do so!

Some businesses deserve it, however others have done nothing wrong other than being in front of an overly important individual. I am having trouble finding it right now, but a couple times people have threatened to smear my name and brand if I didn't give them a refund for some scammy crap they bought from someone else! They acknowledged that I wasn't associated with it, but they wanted their money back from someone & were willing to take it out of my brand if I wouldn't give it to them. And so I spoke French.

What Caused the Freetardation of the Web?

One time The Conumerist said they wouldn't link to our website because some other sites using infographics are spam, but then they ran our infographic (sans the attribution to the person who spend thousands of Dollars creating it and marketing it) and they got tons of awareness and exposure from our content. Sites like the Huffington Post do that sort of stuff all the time, and often become the canonical source for YOUR content.

Not only are there business models built on paying users to steal other's valuable content, stripping attribution & make it free (like Youtube), but the model is so acceptable online now that you can simply program bots to do it (see Ask or Mahalo).

Google claims to make copyright better online, but if you search on Google they will recommend looking for torrents, cracks, keygens, and serial numbers. A friend of mine even showed me a YouTube video which shared a DreamWeaver serial code in it. As a person who has bought their software 4 or 5 times now I think that is just awful!

What caused this sea shift? What caused people to expect & even DEMAND the labor of others for free?

I think a lot of it is an extension of the penny gap, an online bias towards ads, and open source software.

The Penny Gap

A lot of dumb people the world over are trained that Kim Kardashian and other such celebrities are important to their daily lives. In spite of all of this sort of stuff, Bing reported that for 2010 "free" was one of the top 10 searched for keywords on the web.

The penny gap is a concept where by charging *anything* for what you do you have to make it exceptionally better than anything which is freely accessible. Free is such a powerful psychological motivator that people will do irrational things for free. Such moves are largely driven by the fear of loss. If you turn down free you potentially lose out on something, but if you accept it there is no risk (that you are aware of, anyway) since it is "free." Anything that is paid not only has the risk of you being wrong, but it also has the risk of fine print.

The fine print isn't the only reason people get screwed though. The people who do the screw jobs via fine print techniques often pay a lot for exposure. And since the web (as a network) is optimized for generating maximum revenues it means that the people who eventually find you will likely become distrusting by the time they do, as they will already have got conned by someone else who is great at sales, but nothing else!

That will only reinforce the penny gap

Profitably Publishing in a World Dominated by the Penny Gap

Since so many people chase free, a lot of publishing business models are built around tricking people to click ads rather than selling something. In some circles you are viewed as sleazy for having an affiliate link in your content even if you buy and use what you are promoting & spend hours writing in-depth reviews and tutorials. Many of the same folks who view any affiliate link as sleazy carpet bomb their own websites with AdSense ads. And lets not forget that AdSense even has an ad category for "get rich quick."

Further, with Google launching Boutiques.com, selling CPA product ads on their search results, offering comparison lead generation forms on their search results, and running the Google affiliate network it is safe to say that Google is easily one of the top 5 affiliates in the world. If being an affiliate is so sleazy (and tricking people into ad clicks is somehow any better) then why is Google such a big affiliate & why do so many of their AdSense ads carry links promoting affiliate offers?

5 Online Business Models

The web has a bias toward making stuff somewhat free for most people & really monetizing the hell out of the pour souls who are naive enough to click the ads. As an online publisher you generally have 5 main business options

  • trick people into clicking ads
  • do biased reviews of hyped junk that rip people off
  • encourage negative reviews and extort businesses (illegal, and the model of some sites like RipOffReport)
  • honestly review and promote the best products and services available and monetize some of those efforts with affiliate links (I include networks like OpenTable in this category)
  • add enough value yourself that you can offer a product or service for sale

Anyone can easily do the first 3 models, but the last 2 are more challenging. The 4th one is hard because its easier to convince naive people to buy products that are built around the sales letters than it is to convince people to buy things where the sales letter was built around the product.

The tricky part with the last category...actually adding enough value to be able to charge...is that it is far harder than most people realize. The minute you publish anything publicly there are forces pushing to commoditize it (most open source software is a remake of an existing paid software solution rather than an entirely new category unto itself). Also, if someone buys something from you and gets a great return they may not want to mention it to others precisely because they rely so heavily on you and they are getting such great returns from your product or service. And even if you sell physical products, Google selling CPA ads to the likes of Wal-Mart can still drive you under unless you turn it from a product into a service (like Zappos has done).

Aggressive Sales Techniques Yield Bad Customers

If you are aggressive in your sales tactics you get customers you do not even want. The guy who created the Product Launch Formula stuff highlighted how he saw 30% refund rates on it. If you are not aggressive in your sales tactics then you will find affiliates tend to promote the stuff that is more aggressive, typically optimizing for yield rather than promoting what is best. That is how self-interested economics works.

Why You Should Give Something Away

The way to get around with having to compete with that sort of stuff is to rely on a freemium model.

In spite of the negative impacts of freetards, giving something away is almost a requirement of online marketing today in many competitive markets, particularly if you do not want to scam people & you are not sitting on an established brand and a mountain of cash.

You give some stuff away and set up a sales funnel, while hoping to eventually sell something else. This, in turn, is the tricky part. As soon as you set up *any* barriers you will get tons of complaints. If you optimize for minimizing complaints you would have to stop selling anything and just get a job working at Wal-Mart being paid just enough to live on (after you add in your food stamp income).

What Are You Optimizing?

Support is *not* free. Especially after you become popular and the value of your time increases. If people are too lazy to read the instructions or are too incompetent to follow directions they need to eat that. If you try to 'help' them they will not only eat your time, but also make your employees want to quit:

In talking with other plugin developers, it seems fairly universal that the reward for a successful plugin is a deluge of support email that includes the worst kind of sense of entitlement, rudeness and ignorance. The community as a whole seems to expect to be able to pay nothing, yet received expert and individual help and support for free.

One of my goals with WordPress HelpCenter was to try to affect change in this area. My belief was that we could work with plugin developers to have them send support requests to WPHC, have WPHC provide commercial support services, and give a revenue stream back to the plugin developers. While WPHC has been successful overall, it has utterly failed in this effort. What we found was that regardless of the actual issue, users experiencing trouble with a plugin blame the plugin. They assume it’s a coding problem (even though it isn’t in most cases), expect free support and are so rude that we’ve lost people from our team as a result

I would say anyone who pays you nothing and then steals your time *AND* your employees is the exact opposite of a customer: a freetard!

To clarify, all people who use your free stuff are not freetards, but the people who use it incompetently then curse at you and demand phone support and such certainly are freetards.

Ultimately you are not optimizing for the 99% of people who come across your website and never spend a Dollar. You are instead optimizing for the people who are considering purchasing. This gives you a diametric view of the market, where the same content receives a wide range of responses, which range from...

... right on through to ...

If you optimize to make that first person happy it means you lack internal respect and are throwing away over half of your income, because the second person won't have a sales funnel to build trust in you.

You can put an unsubscribe link in every email (we do), allow people to opt into the auto-responder or choose not to (we do), but you can't stop a person from taking steroids and/or missing their medication. A marketer who sets up a free email subscription on a site about marketing and then is angry about receiving free marketing tips is a complete idiot.

When people are polite (like the second example) I respond right back and try to help them as best I can. When someone acts like a steroid addicted enraged freetard who missed this morning's medications (like the first message, from K. Boostrom) I either ignore them or tell them to screw off. I usually ignore them, but when they provide curse words AND threats then they typically get a response. ;)

What constructive advice can you glean from

Because media and many software products have no cost to consumers people think that everything online (except whatever they sell) should be free. Not only should products be free, but so should services. Look at this lovely email from France

Note that it starts off with the obligatory insult, then complains about all the free stuff we offer AND the free content we give away. They then suggest I should SPEND my time and my money to give them a free consult. He also wants me to schedule my life around him being half-way around the world. The flip side of that is I have received numerous 3am wake up calls from people who looked up my phone number from our whois and decided I would like to have a chat about how incompetent they are.

I wish I could tell you that the above was a remarkable outlier, but sadly, such interactions are becoming more common. Hence using private registration.

The web is a great economic force. It makes information more accessible and for free. Many millionaires and billion Dollar companies are built on free open source software. But the reason open source software is free is that there are other means of monetization:

  • support is not free and/or
  • the site is a PageRank funnel to another monetized website (see Wikipedia/Wikia & Wordpress.org/Wordpress.com/Foodpress) and/or
  • the software builds network effects and/or awareness that builds stature, which can be monetized in other ways
  • the software acts as a recruitment tool to attract employees
  • etc etc etc

Help Wanted: Millionaire Seeking Free SEO Consultant

Some people might say that "well the freetards are just staring out, so you need to give them the benefit of the doubt." And part of why we offer so much for free is that I do remember where I came from and we do try to help people out. A lot!

But some of the freetards are anything but poor. Case in point:

Freetard vs Customer

How does Wordnet define a client?

Client:

  • a person who seeks the advice of a lawyer
  • customer: someone who pays for goods or services

Prospective customers can make absurd claims and announce desires that will clearly lose you money but they are NOT your customer until they pay you. And even then, if they are abusive you have the right to terminate the relationship.

Freetards ACT like they have paid you and want the benefits of your services without paying a cent.

In the years to come these trends mentioned above will only accelerate. And that means that you have to make a choice on who you want to work for and what you want your work life to be like. You can choose your customers or let them choose you. But part of the process needs to be filtering what you don't want, lest you end up with freetards threatening to give your paying customers a beat down.

Upgrades Coming Soon(ish) :)

I already mentioned this to our subscribers & affiliates, but we are pausing the ability to subscribe to our membership site so we can perform upgrades.

We want to update Drupal, launch the new site design, and switch out the membership management software from what has become sorta big and hairy to a platform that is pre-packaged & thus more manageable. Doing this will allow us to accept payments on-site, offer a couple different tiers of access, allow me to segment some aspects of customer support to make some of the account management stuff easier to do by staff.

The end goal of this upgrade is to make the site look more modern & cohesive, and make it so we are spending more of our resources on creating new content & tools and less on management of the underlying software & such.

When we shifted to a membership site a couple years ago I didn't appreciate the level of success it would achieve & I didn't realize how some of the smaller bugs would become larger issues as our site grew. Most of those bugs have been fixed, but there are still a few ghosts & we are sorta limited by spending resources on re-creating the wheel, rather than buying wheels & then layering more value on top. :)

I still intend to be involved in the site daily, but for my health (and sanity) it really makes sense to leverage division of labor on some of the administrative stuff, rather than burning myself out trying to manage every aspect of everything. Our employees are great & now we just need to implement systems that help them be greater(er). :D

We are aiming to open back up sometime in mid-January. The blog and site will still continue, but given the number of databases the site currently has & how it syncs up with Paypal it is likely best for us to close off new subscriptions while we are changing stuff around.

We could try switching stuff while keeping everything active, but the big issue there is if any weird anomalies happen then that is probably more stress than I would care to deal with. I love the site & I want to keep it that way (vs pull my hair out due to putting too much stress on myself). :D

If you want to be notified when we re-open please comment on this post & we will email everyone who commented once we have relaunched under the new system & tested everything out. :)

Hope the holidays go well for you & more to come when we make some significant progress with these changes.

Google - Now With More Google in Your Google TM

Ben Edelman did it again :)

This time he highlighted how Google hard codes their search results:

[When] we roll[ed] out Google Finance, we did put the Google link first. It seems only fair right, we do all the work for the search page and all these other things, so we do put it first... That has actually been our policy, since then, because of Finance. So for Google Maps again, it's the first link. - Marissa Mayer

If they gain certain privileges in the marketplace by claiming to not abuse their power and that their algorithmic results are neutral, but those algorithmic results may be pushed below the fold, then is it "only fair" for them to put themselves in a default market leading position in any category they feel they can make money from by selling ads in? Or is that an abuse of power?

As Google adds features, collects more data, puts ads everywhere, and pushes into being a publisher on more fronts, at some point there will be a straw that breaks the camel's back. Big money is paying attention and the list of "evidence" grows weekly. Sometimes they still think like a start up. And that will lead to their demise.

It might not be anytime soon, but eventually they will hit a whammy.

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