When platforms are new they start off as being fairly open to win attention & maximize their growth rates. Over time as they push to monetize they shift gears & what was once true becomes misleading. Thus a lot people likely come off as sounding like quack jobs because they keep having to reinvent themselves & reassess their belief systems as the markets change.
Hello Mr. Cynic
If you write things that sound like rants & complaints a lot of people mistake it as thinking you are a crank full of gloom & nonsense. For what it is worth, in many ways I think the future of the web will still be bright, but just relatively less bright than it was in the recent past for smaller players.
The web is becoming more & more like the physical world (andis mergingwith it). For a long time search & online was largely a meritocracy, where the best person could easily win even if they came from the most humble beginnings.
In search of years gone by, large & complex organizations that were overly bloated and inefficient routinely had their asses handed to them by smaller & more efficient operations. Butthensizebecame a primary signal of relevancy & quality, and that all changed. As Larry Page & Sergey Brin warned, the relevancy algorithms inevitably follow the underlying business model of the search engine.
That is a big part of the disillusionment with Google. For many years they were a leveler which was concerned primarily with quality. That grew the importance of search & differentiated them from everyone else, but then they decided to be "the same" & so many who promoted them felt a bit betrayed.
If a person gives you something and then takes it away you likely view them worse than someone who simply never offered that in the first place. As a species we are biologically aligned with being adverse toward loss.
Vertical AND Horizontal Integration
I was chatting with a friend about the above trend & his responses were:
"you don't shoot the guy that didn't give you the job; you shoot the guy that gave you the job and then fired you"
"their public image as being a leveler becomes more grating too, given how much they no longer represent that"
"the biggest problem we have in search is that search engines don't view themselves as a medium. They want to be the cable operator + television show + in-show advertising + commercials...I'm not aware of another medium where it works that way"
Affiliate links should be clearly labeled as such. When they are not clearly labeled & go through tracking redirects they are sneaky redirects in Google's remote rater guidelines. On YouTube the affiliate links to Amazon & iTunes are not labeled as such & add an extra layer of tracking redirects to the sequence.
Let Me See Your Backlinks!
Yesterday someone sent me an email about their reinclusion request being denied because someone else scraped their eZineArticles article & syndicated it to another 3rd party site.
They didn't create that link and yet they are somehow supposed to get a spammer (maybe one from another continent!) to remove it. In many cases spammers won't respond to anything other than cash, but if you do offer cash to get the job done then that spammer might keep adding more and more links over time, turning their mark into an easy source of subscription revenues.
What is Wrong With This Picture?
The above scenario is ridiculous.
If you look at *any* site closely enough there will be something wrong with it.
Just by the virtue of existing & ranking you will pick up dozens to hundreds of spammy links you don't even want, due to SERP scraper sites that are trying to rank on longtail keyword queries.
About 5 years ago I had a page get filtered out because it gained about 500 scraper links in a month. No matter what I did that page would not rank until it was rewrote with a fresh page title. When you could change things & have the algorithms re-evaluate them automatically there was at least a decent opportunity to get around such issues.
Now that there is a manual review process holding you responsible for the actions of third party webmasters the market is a bit more grim.
But at least a bunch of link removal services are cropping up to profit from Google's errant logic. ;)
Engineers Ad Networks Love Quality Websites Big Brands
But if you are a low margin small business who has seen declining revenue AND have to jump through further hoops (rather than focusing on running your business) at some point it is easier to give up than to keep on fighting.
Eventually a lot of the displacement trends that are hitting the organic search market will hit the paid search market & Google will make many of the enterprise AdWords management tools obsolete via a combination of various free scripts & data obfuscation.
At that point in time some of the paid search folks will look like the guy to the right, but nobody will care, as those same people reminded us that this is just how business works. :D
Google appears to have a culture that condones shamelessly violating consumer privacy. How else can you explain a company that bypasses Apple's iPhone privacy settings in a reported attempt to strengthen advertising revenues?
It is hard to believe that Dave Packard or Andy Grove would ever tell a group of entrepreneurs that he did "every horrible thing in the book to just get revenues right away," or brag to trade publications that his company used behavioral psychologists to design "compulsion loops" into products to keep customers engaged. But Mark Pincus, the founder of Internet gaming giant Zynga, has done just that.
When corporate leaders pursue wealth in the winner-take-all Internet environment, companies dance on the edge of acceptable behavior. If they don't take it to the limit, a competitor will. That competitor will become the dominant supplier -- one monopoly will replace another. And when you engage in these activities you get a different set of Valley values: the values of customer exploitation.
We’ve heard complaints from users that if they click on a result and it’s difficult to find the actual content, they aren’t happy with the experience. Rather than scrolling down the page past a slew of ads, users want to see content right away. So sites that don’t have much content “above-the-fold” can be affected by this change. If you click on a website and the part of the website you see first either doesn’t have a lot of visible content above-the-fold or dedicates a large fraction of the site’s initial screen real estate to ads, that’s not a very good user experience.
Also recall that the second version of the Panda update encouraged users to block sites & many programmers blocked Experts-exchange due to disliking their scroll cloaking. That in turn caused Experts-exchange to get hit & see a nose dive in traffic.
Between the above & seeing how implementation of this quiz technology works, I had to ask: How do you feel about ads that lock content behind poll questions like this one?
Hate them. A total waste of time
63.7% (+3.3 / -3.4)
I am indifferent
30.8% (+3.3 / -3.1)
I love them. These are fun
5.5% (+2.5 / -1.7)
There isn't a huge split between men & women. Men hate them a bit more, but they also like them a bit more...they are just less indifferent.
Hate them. A total waste of time
66.1% (+3.4 / -3.6)
61.5% (+5.4 / -5.7)
I am indifferent
27.2% (+3.4 / -3.2)
34.2% (+5.6 / -5.2)
I love them. These are fun
6.7% (+2.3 / -1.7)
4.3% (+5.1 / -2.4)
Young people & old people tend to like such quizes more than people in the middle. My guess is this is because older people are a bit lonely & younger people do not value their time as much and presume it is more important that they voice their opinions on trivial matters. People just before their retirement (who have recently been hosed by the financial markets) tend not to like these polls as much & same with people in their mid 30s to mid 40s, who are likely short on time trying to balance career, family & finances.
18-24 year-olds (359)
25-34 year-olds (267)
35-44 year-olds (151)
45-54 year-olds (200)
55-64 year-olds (158)
65+ year-olds (83)
Hate them. A total waste of time
62.1% (+4.9 / -5.2)
62.6% (+6.0 / -6.4)
69.4% (+6.9 / -7.9)
64.5% (+6.5 / -7.1)
68.3% (+6.3 / -7.1)
62.3% (+10.2 / -11.4)
I am indifferent
28.9% (+4.9 / -4.5)
32.1% (+6.2 / -5.6)
24.0% (+7.6 / -6.2)
30.8% (+7.0 / -6.2)
28.4% (+6.9 / -6.0)
28.7% (+11.3 / -9.1)
I love them. These are fun
8.9% (+3.4 / -2.5)
5.3% (+3.7 / -2.2)
6.6% (+5.3 / -3.0)
4.7% (+3.7 / -2.1)
3.3% (+4.4 / -1.9)
9.0% (+9.7 / -4.9)
People out west tend to be more indifferent. Like, whatever man. This may or may not have something to do with California's marijuana laws. ;)
The US Midwest (280)
The US Northeast (331)
The US South (363)
The US West (246)
Hate them. A total waste of time
65.2% (+5.6 / -6.0)
69.0% (+6.2 / -7.0)
65.6% (+5.9 / -6.4)
55.6% (+7.2 / -7.5)
I am indifferent
29.7% (+5.9 / -5.3)
25.6% (+6.8 / -5.8)
28.7% (+6.2 / -5.5)
38.7% (+7.4 / -6.9)
I love them. These are fun
5.1% (+4.5 / -2.4)
5.4% (+5.9 / -2.9)
5.7% (+4.8 / -2.7)
5.6% (+7.4 / -3.3)
Rural people tend to like such polls more than others. Perhaps it has to do with a greater longing for connection due to being more isolated?
Urban areas (608)
Rural areas (117)
Suburban areas (477)
Hate them. A total waste of time
62.6% (+4.6 / -4.9)
53.6% (+10.1 / -10.4)
63.8% (+4.8 / -5.1)
I am indifferent
32.2% (+4.8 / -4.4)
37.5% (+10.4 / -9.3)
29.1% (+5.0 / -4.6)
I love them. These are fun
5.2% (+4.4 / -2.5)
8.9% (+9.5 / -4.8)
7.2% (+5.2 / -3.1)
There aren't any conclusive bits based on income. Wealthier people appear to be more indifferent, however the sampling error on that is huge due to the small sample size.
People earning $0-24K (151)
People earning $25-49K (670)
People earning $50-74K (303)
People earning $75-99K (77)
People earning $100-149K (20)
People earning $150K+
Hate them. A total waste of time
69.0% (+7.7 / -8.9)
62.1% (+4.4 / -4.6)
69.7% (+5.5 / -6.1)
69.7% (+9.1 / -10.9)
53.8% (+19.3 / -20.5)
I am indifferent
26.0% (+8.5 / -7.0)
32.6% (+4.6 / -4.3)
23.6% (+5.8 / -5.0)
26.0% (+11.1 / -8.7)
41.7% (+20.6 / -18.1)
I love them. These are fun
5.0% (+6.8 / -3.0)
5.3% (+4.0 / -2.4)
6.7% (+5.7 / -3.2)
4.3% (+11.8 / -3.3)
4.4% (+27.1 / -4.0)
So, ultimately, Google was right that users hate excessive ads & cloaking. But the one thing users hate more than either of those is paying for content. ;)
Some of the traditional publishing businesses are dying on the vine & this is certainly a great experiment to try to generate incremental revenues.
How does Google's definition of cloaking square with the above? If publishers (or a competing ad network) do the same thing without Google, would it be considered spam?
the page disclaims that it is not endorsed by Google
the page embeds a Google search box
the page strips out the Yahoo! Directory search box
the page strips out the Yahoo! Directory PPC ads (on the categories which have them)
the page strips out the Yahoo! Directory logo
Recall that when Google ran their bogus sting operation on Bing, Google engineers suggest that Bing was below board for using user clickstreams to potentially influence their search results. That level of outrage & the smear PR campaign look ridiculous when compared against Google's behavior toward the Yahoo! Directory, which is orders of magnitude worse:
Bing vs Google
Google vs Yahoo! Directory
Uses user-experience across a wide range of search engines to potentially impact a limited number of search queries in a minor way.
Shags expensive hand-created editorial content wholesale & hosts it on Google.com.
Bing hosts Bing search results using Bing snippets.
Google hosts Yahoo! Directory results using Yahoo! Directory listing content & keeps all the user data.
Bing publicly claimed for years to be using a user-driven search signal based on query streams.
Google removes the Yahoo! Directory logo to format the page. Does Google remove the Google logo from Google.com when formatting for mobile? Nope.
Bing sells their own ads & is not scraping Google content wholesale.
Google scrapes Yahoo! Directory content wholesale & strips out the sidebar CPC ads.
Bing puts their own search box on their own website.
Google puts their own search box on the content of the Yahoo! Directory.
Google claimed that Bing was using "their data" when tracking end user behavior.
Google hosts the Yahoo! Directory page, allowing themselves to fully track user behavior, while robbing Yahoo! of the opportunity to even see their own data with how users interact with their own listings.
In the above case the publisher absorbs 100% of the editorial cost & Google absorbs nearly 100% of the benefit (while disclaiming they do not endorse the page they host, wrap in their own search ad, and track user behavior on).
As we move into a search market where the search engines give you a slightly larger listing for marking up your pages with rich snippets, you will see a short term 10% or 20% lift in traffic followed by a 50% or more decline when Google enters your market with "instant answers."
The ads remain up top & the organic resultss get pushed down. It isn't scraping if they get 10 or 20 competitors to do it & then use the aggregate data to launch a competing service ... talk to the bankrupt Yellow Pages companies & ask them how Google has helped to build their businesses.
Update: looks like this has been around for a while...though when I spoke to numerous friends nobody had ever seen it before. The only reason I came across it was seeing a referrer through a new page type from Google & not knowing what the heck it was. Clearly this search option doesn't get much traffic because Google even removes their own ads from their own search results. I am glad to know this isn't something that is widespread, though still surprised it exists at all given that it effectively removes monetization from the publisher & takes the content wholesale and re-publishes it across domain names.
At SMX I gave a presentation on brand & how Google has biased the algorithms toward brands. having already seeing the bulk of my argument months prior, Bryson Meunier spoke after me and put together a presentation that used bogus statistics & was basically a smear of me. He was so over the top with his obnoxious behavior that when Danny Sullivan mentioned the next speaker after him he jokingly said "up next, Ron Paul."
I honestly thought the point of the discussion was to highlight how Google has (or hasn't) biased the algorithms, editorial policies & search interface toward brands. However, if a person speaks after you and uses bogus statistics to reach junk conclusions, you can't debunk their aggregate information until after you have looked into it some. An honest person can put what they know out there & share it publicly in advanced, a dishonest person hides behind junk research and the label of science to ram through poorly thought out trash, collecting whatever "data" confirms their own bias while ignorning the pieces of reality that don't.
As an example, he suggested that based on the number of employees and revenues Wikipedia is a small business. He then went on to say that since Wikipedia wasn't on Interbrand's "scientific" study that they were not a top brand. Nevermind that no countries, religions, sports, celebrities, or non-profits make the list of top "companies."
After IAC figured out that they were able to get away with running Ask.com as a thin scraper site, they outsourced "the algorithm" and fired many of their employees. Because they have fewer employees, Bryson considers Ask as "a mid-sized business" even though they are part of a multi-billion Dollar company and IAC is Google's #1 advertiser!
According to Compete's downstream traffic stats, YouTube receives about 1 in 13 search clicks from Google, but since it wasn't on Interbrand's list "who cares?" Incidentally, the folks at Interbrand do have a mention of YouTube on their top 100 brands page, but it was a suggestion that you watch their videos on YouTube. Their methodology is so suspect that Goldman Sachs and Yahoo! made the cut while YouTube didn't, even though YouTube is one of their few offsite promotional channels they promote on that very page. Their list also puts Microsoft's brand value at about double Apple's (and the list came out when Steve Jobs was still alive).
Bryson also claimed that since big brands are inefficient and slow moving they already have a big disadvantage so it makes sense for search engines to compensate for that. That is at best an illegitimate line of reasoning because those companies have plenty of solutions available to them & have the capital needed to buy out competitors. Even when the SERPs look independent, a lot of the listed sites are owned by large conglomorates. As an example, here is a random search from earlier today:
Meanwhile the same idiotic logic ignores the lack of resources at small businesses. Nowhere in his presentation was a highlight of how Google favored affiliates & direct marketers until the profit margins of the direct response marketing model started to peak & then Google transitioned to promoting brands, as they wanted to keep increasing revenues and monetize more clicks.
Bryson also shared an example of where he got a photo sharing site 40,000 unique visitors a month as a case study of the power of white hat SEO. 40,000 monthly visits to a photo sharing site might fund a light Starbucks addiction (assuming you value your time at nothing, have no employees, ignore hosting costs and the SEO is free), but not much beyond that. If that is a success case study, that shows how much harder the ecosystem is getting to operate in as a small business.
He also put out a painfully fluffy "white paper" / sales letter which stated that since Wal-Mart has a page about SEO they should outrank seobook on "SEO" related queries if my theories of brand bias are correct. That misses the point entirely. I never stated that garbage content on branded sites always outperforms quality content on niche sites, but rather that a lot of smaller websites were intentionally being squeezed out of the ecosystem. Sure some small sites manage to compete, but the odds of them succeeding today are much lower than they were 3 or 4 years ago.
At SMX near the end of our session a question was asked about the audience composition & most people were either big brands or people working for big brands. If you go back to when I first got into SEO in 2003 the audience composition was almost entirely small publishers and independent SEOs. This squeezing out of small players is not something new to search or the web. If you look at the history of any modern communications network this cycle has repeated itself in every single medium - phone, radio, television, and the web.
To be fair, I can understand why a no-name also ran SEO consultant would want to pitch himself for being up for doing SEO work for large brands. Brands generally have fatter margins, economies of scale, and large budgets. As Google tilts the algorithm toward the big brands (to where they can fall over the finish line in first place) they are the best clients to work for, since you are swimming downstream.
Why push huge boulders up the side of the mountain for crumbs when you can get paid far more to blow on a snowflake at the top of the mountain?
That is why so many SEOs fawn over trying to get brand clients. The work is high-paying, low risk, and relatively easy.
If we were ever to close up our membership site & focus primarily on SEO consulting work in more structured arrangements then absolutely we would aim at brands & help them fall over the finsh line in first place. ;)
Back when I worked with Clientside SEM we did a good number of big brand projects with some of the largest online portals & retailers. Understanding the business objectives & communicating things in a way that builds buy in from other departments is of course challenging. You need simplicity & directness without oversimplifying. But (if you work for great clients - like we did), then that is nowhere near as challenging as building a site from scratch into something that can compete for lucrative keywords. I recently stepped back from the client consulting model for a bit simply because I was pulling myself in too many directions & working too long, but Scott is still flourishing & delivering excellent results for clients.
I have nothing against the concept of branding (think of how many years I slaved building up this site & the capital I have poured into it), but I like to share the trends in the ecosystem as they are, rather than as a hack warping my view to try to pick up consulting clients. Our site would likely make far more income if we kept using the words "enterprise" "brand" "fortune 500" and then sold consulting to that target audience. In fact, a large % of our members here are fortune 500s, conglomerates, newspaper chains, magazine publishers, and so on.
It is not that brand counts for nothing (or that it should count for nothing) but anyone who claims the table isn't tilted is either ignorant, a liar, or both.
Truth has to count for something.
Disclaimer: I am not saying enterprise SEO is always easy (there are real challenges, especially with internal politics that add arbitrary constraints). And I am not saying that everyone who targets the enterprise market is a hack (there are some super talented folks out there). But the challenge of being a profitable small webmaster is much more of a struggle than ranking a site that Google is intentionally biasing their algorithms toward promoting.
Disclaimer2: I realize refuting a douchebag like Bryson Meunier is batting below my league, however as a matter of principal I won't let sleazeballs get away with taking a swipe using junk science. The word science deserves better than that.
It doesn't matter what "signals" Google chooses to use when Google also gets to score themselves however they like. And even if Google were not trying to bias the promotion of their own content then any signals they do collect on Google properties will be over-represented by regular Google users.
Google can put out something fairly average, promote it, then iterate to improve it as they collect end user data. Publishers as big as MotorTrend can't have that business model though. And smaller publishers simply get effectively removed from the web when something like Panda or a hand penalty hits them. Worse yet, upon "review" search engineers may choose to review an older version of the site rather than the current site!
With that level of uncertainty, how do you aggressively invest in improving your website?
Over a half-year after Panda launched there are few case studies of recoveries & worse yet, some of the few sites that recovered just relapsed!
If you look at search using a pragmatic & holistic view, then this year the only thing that really changed with "content" farms is you can now insert the word video for content & almost all that video is hosted on Youtube.
To highlight the absurdity, I created another XtraNormal video. :)
Compete.com's Google downstream search traffic stats are available with a premium membership to their site, & they do a good job of showing the actual traffic impact of the aggregate algorithmic changes. YouTube's growth is also well reflected in numbers from firms like SearchMetrics
“A private understanding was reached between the OPA and Google,” an office assistant with e-mail evidence told Politically Illustrated. “The organization is responsible for coordinating legal and legislative matters that impact our members, and one of the issues was applying pressure to Google to get them to adjust their search algorithm to favor our members.”
At the same time, said "premium publishers" were backfilling their websites padding them out with auto-generated junk created by companies like Daylife, where some of the pages offer Mahalo-inspired 100% recycled content.
My suspicion is that Google did not care about the auto-generated "news" garbage for a number of reasons
it helps subsidize the big media interests
they don't want to hit big media & cause a backlash
it is quite easy for Google to detect & demote whenever they want to
it gives Google more flexibility going forward when deciding how to deal with issues (if everyone is a spammer then Google has more flexibility in deciding how to handle "spam" to maximize their returns.)
It is the exact same reason that Google says link buying is bad, while tolerating "sponsored features" sections on large newspapers:
The leaders of Narrative Science emphasized that their technology would be primarily a low-cost tool for publications to expand and enrich coverage when editorial budgets are under pressure. The company, founded last year, has 20 customers so far. Several are still experimenting with the technology, and Stuart Frankel, the chief executive of Narrative Science, wouldn’t name them. They include newspaper chains seeking to offer automated summary articles for more extensive coverage of local youth sports and to generate articles about the quarterly financial results of local public companies.
Official sources using "automated journalism" is a perfect response to Google's brand-focused algorithms:
Last fall, the Big Ten Network began using Narrative Science for updates of football and basketball games. Those reports helped drive a surge in referrals to the Web site from Google’s search algorithm, which highly ranks new content on popular subjects, Mr. Calderon says. The network’s Web traffic for football games last season was 40 percent higher than in 2009.
How expensive cheap is that technology?
The above linked article states that "the cost is far less, by industry estimates, than the average cost per article of local online news ventures like AOL’s Patch or answer sites, like those run by Demand Media."
And the exposure earned by the machine-generated content will be much greater than Demand Media gets, since Demand Media was torched by the Panda update AND many of the sites using this "algorithmic journalism" were given a ranking boost by Google due to their brand strength.
The improved cost structure for firms employing "algorithmic journalism" will evoke Gresham's law. This starts off on niche market edges to legitimize the application, fund improvement of the technology & "extend journalism" but a couple years into the game a company that is about to go under bets the farm. When the strategy proves a winner for them, competing publishers either adopt the same or go under.
That is the future.
Across thousands of cities, millions of topics & billions of people.
Even More Corporate Boosts
Just because something is large does not mean it is great across the board. Businesses have strengths and weaknesses. Sure I do like love shopping on eBay for vintage video games, but does that mean I want to buy books from eBay? Nope.
Likewise, Google's friend of a friend approach to social misses the mark. Do I care that someone I exchanged emails with is a fan of an athlete who promotes his own highlight reels? No I do not.
In a world where machine generated journalism exists, I might LOVE one article from a publication while loathing auto-generated garbage published elsewhere on the same site.
Line Extension & "Merging Without Merging"
At Macworld in 2007 Eric Schmidt said "What I liked about the new device and the architecture of the Internet is you can merge without merging. Each company should do the absolutely best thing they can do every time, and I think he's shown that today."
If you don't have the ability to algorithmically generate content to test new markets then one of the best ways to "merge without merging" is to sell traffic to partners via an affiliate program.
In our free SEO tips we send new members I recommend setting up AdWords and adCenter accounts to test traffic streams, so that you have the data needed to know what keywords to target. But affiliates need not apply:
Hello Aaron Wall,
I just signed up for the Get $75 of Free AdWords with Google Adwords. After receiving an e-mail stating that I was to call an 877 number of Google Adwords, I was told in my phone call that affiliate marketing accounts were not accepted. I guess I confused by this statement. Is this in error? Or am I not understanding the Tip #3 for setting up an account for Google Adwords for promoting a website?
Thank you in advance for your time.
The same Google which allows itself to shamefully carry a "get rich quick" AdSense category considers affiliate marketing unacceptable.
Non-AdSense Affiliates Classified as Doorway Pages, Not Welcome in the Organic Search Results?
The exact same thing is happening in the organic search results right now. Maybe not on your keywords & maybe not today, but if you are an affiliate, the trend is not your friend. ;)
I have heard recently from multiple friends that some of their affiliate sites were penalized for being doorway & bridge pages. At the same time, another friend showed me some BeatThatQuote affiliates ranking thin websites.
Larger companies like BankRate can run a half-dozen credit card affiliate websites & an affiliate network. And they can create risk-adjusted yield by buying out smaller competitors, largely because Google won't penalize them based on the site being owned by a fortune 500. However the independent affiliate is forced to sell out early due to the risk that Google can arbitrarily decide they are a doorway site at anytime.
The absurd thing is that if independent webmasters don't include revenue generation in their website then they don't have the capital *required* to invest in brand & further improving their website. How do you compete against automated journalism when Google gives the automated content a ranking boost? And if you want to do higher quality than the machine generated content, how do you hire employees if you are not even allowed to monetize?
I suppose there is AdSense.
Even though AdSense publishers are Google's affiliates they are still welcome to participate in Google's ecosystem.
Risks to Small Businesses
Small businesses not only have to compete against algorithmic journalism, Google's algorithmic bias toward brands, arbitrary "doorway page" editorial judgements cast against them by engineers & significant algorithm changes, but they also have to deal with loopholes Google leaves in the system that allow them to be arbitrarily removed from the ecosystem.
The big issue Google is facing on the content quality front is the incentive structure. They have got that wrong for a long time now. They may think that these big changes are motivating people to improve quality, but realistically the lack of certainty is prohibiting investment in real quality while ramping investment in exploitation.
How can anyone invest deeply over the long term in a search ecosystem where Google...
Google would spin Performics out of DoubleClick, and sell it to holding firm Publicis.
Only one major force inside of Google hated the plan. Guess who? Larry Page.
According to our source, Larry tried to sell the rest of Google's executive team on keeping Performics.
"He wanted to see how those things work. He wanted to experiment."
The problem with that is that most honest economic innovation (eg: not just exploitation) comes from small businesses. Going into peak cheap oil where food riots are becoming more common & pensions are about to blow up, we need the kings of information to encourage innovation, rather than relying on doing whatever is easy & trusting established old leaders while retarding risk taking from (& investment in) start ups.
In some markets being successful means staying small, building deeper into a niche, and keep adding value until you have a strong position. However some ecommerce sites that were not associated with big brands were torched by the Panda update.
Betting on Brand
As Google has tilted their algorithm toward brand, some ecommerce companies that focused on winning relevant niches are now watering down their competitive advantages by betting the company on brand:
CSN Stores is today consolidating its 200+ shopping sites into a single ecommerce website under one brand: Wayfair.com.
So why the change to Wayfair.com? Primarily for obvious branding reasons: the company has long been spending a huge amount of money on marketing a lot of separate websites, and now they can focus on advertising just one.
Other reasons for the consolidation of the separate shopping site are search engine optimization – which was apparently much needed after Google’s recent Panda update – and the fresh ability to make recommendations to shoppers based on their collective purchase history.
But, as some brands abuse Google the same way the content farms did, is that a good bet? I don't think it is.
What is so Bad About Content Farms?
headline over-promises, content under-delivers
written by people who are often ignorant of what they are writing about
add nothing new to the ecosystem, just a dumbed-down reshash of what already exists
done cheaply & in bulk, in a factory-line styled format
contains frequent spelling and grammatical errors
primarily focused on pulling in traffic from search engines
exists primarily to promote something else (ads or the above-the-fold ecommerce product listings)
etc. etc. etc.
Such behavior is *not* unique to the sites that were branded as content farms & is quickly spreading across fortune 500 websites.
Big Brands Become Content Farms
A friend sent me an email which highlighted how a well-known brand was ordering thousands of pieces of "content" in bulk for their branded site.
Here is the email, with blurring to protect the guilty.
The only difference between the "content farms" and the branded sites engaging in content farming is the logo up in the top-left corner of the page. The business process from how the content is created, to who it is created by, to what they are paid to create it, to the interface it is ordered through, on to how it is published is exactly the same.
Many of the same authors who had some of their eHow "articles" deleted are now writing dozens of "articles" for fortune 500 websites.
Then I expected it would likely take a couple years to go mainstream.
But with the economy being so weak (and back in yet another undeclared recession, actually honestly never having left the last one) this shift only took 6 months to happen. At this point I expect it to spread quickly, especially as the economy gets worse. The above fortune 500 company is one that got a strong boost from Panda & as their downstream traffic from Google picks up over the next month or 2 you can expect many of their competitors to copy the strategy.
This isn't a US-only phenomena. A community member sent me the following, from another fortune 500 company.
Now that fortune 500s are doing almost everything that smaller players could do (but with more capital, more scale, more algorithmic immunity, requiring smaller players to link to them to be listed & in some cases while replacing humans with algorithms) AND get the Google brand boost the future is growing more uncertain for independent webmasters that lack brand, relationships, and community.
Big brands are basically pushed across the finish line while smaller webmasters must run uphill with a 80 pound backpack full of gear - in ice & snow, naked, while being shot at. What's worse, is that brands are now being bought, sold & licensed - just one more tool in the marketer's toolbox (presuming you have the cash).
disclaimer: I am not saying that all content farming is bad (I am fairly agnostic...if it works & people like it, then it works), but the above trend highlights the absurdity of Google's notion of whether something is spam based not on the offense, but rather who is doing it, especially as big brands just quietly turned into content farms.
Vampires have often found it advantageous to maintain a hidden presence in humanity’s most powerful institutions. In the 1600s, it was the Catholic church, and today, as you all know, it’s Google, Fox News.
Trusting a powerful authority is easy. It allows us to have a quick shorthand for how things work without having to go through the pain, effort, & expense to figure things out. But it often leads to bogus solutions.
This video does a great job of explaining how nothing replaces experience in the SEO industry.
A combination of numerous parallel projects, years of trial and error experience & a deep study of analytics data is far superior to having the God complex & feeling 100% certain you are right.
Change is the only constant in SEO.
Big plans often get subverted before they pan out & the more obvious something is the shorter its shelf life. By the time everyone notices a trend then jumping on it at that point probably isn't much of a competitive advantage. You might still be able to make some money for a limited time (or for a longer time if you apply it to new markets), but...
even the current "brand" trend that is in place now will peak out within the next 24 to 36 months. (more on that in a future post)
It is the contrarian investors who are taking (what is generally perceived to be) big risks who are allowed to ride a trend for years and years.
Options & Opportunities
When Panda happened a lot of theories were thrown out as to what happened & how to fix it. Anyone who only runs 1 website is working from a limited data set and a limited set of experience. They could of course decide to do everything, but there is an opportunity cost to doing anything.
Making things worse, if they have limited savings & no other revenue producing websites there are some risks they simply can't take. They can still sorta infer some stuff from looking at the search results, but those who have multiple sites where some were hit and others were not know intimately well the differences between the sites. They also have cashflow to fund additional trial and error campaigns & to double down on the pieces that are working to offset the losses.
Success Requires Failure
A lot of times people want to enter a market with a grand plan that they can follow without changing it once the map is made, but almost anyone who creates something that is successful is forced to change. Every year in the United States 10% of companies go under! And due to the increased level of competition online it likely separates winners from losers even faster than in the offline world. Those who stick to a grand plan are less able to keep up with innovation than those who have an allegiance to the data. Sometimes having a backup plan is far more important than having a grand plan.
Incremental Investing, Small & Large
Almost anything that I have done that has been successful has started ugly & improved over time. This site was an $8 domain & I couldn't even afford a $99 logo for it until I was a couple months into building it. Most of our other successes have been that way as well. If something works keep reinvesting until the margins drop. But when the margins do drop off, it is helpful to have another project you can invest in, such that you are not 1 and done.
The earliest Google research highlighted how ad-based search business models were bad & the now bankrupt Excite.com turned down buying Google for under $1 million. It turns out everyone was wrong there. One company adjusted & the other is bankrupt.
Overcoming the God Complex
We don't control Google. We can only influence variables that they have decided to count. As their business interests and business models change (along with the structure of the web) so must we.
When Google began speaking publicly about content farms Demand Media's Richard Rosenblatt stated that it would be silly to call their stuff a content farm & he emphasized the quality of their content & care that went into it. Of course, those who bothered looking at the content often saw something different
Panda II Hits Demand Media
When Google did the global roll out of Panda earlier this month, they also modified their approach to core Panda algorithm to include user block data:
Today we’ve rolled out this improvement globally to all English-language Google users, and we’ve also incorporated new user feedback signals to help people find better search results. In some high-confidence situations, we are beginning to incorporate data about the sites that users block into our algorithms. In addition, this change also goes deeper into the “long tail” of low-quality websites to return higher-quality results where the algorithm might not have been able to make an assessment before. The impact of these new signals is smaller in scope than the original change: about 2% of U.S. queries are affected by a reasonable amount, compared with almost 12% of U.S. queries for the original change.- Amit Singhal
While many of Demand Media's sites got dinged in the first update, the fall of content farms in general meant that any site operating in that space which was not hit ended up seeing a sharp increase in traffic (as so much of the competition fell). As sites like AnswerBag and Livestrong fell, eHow's traffic increased significantly. I believe Google didn't want to rely on end user block data because it would make it easy for people to do competitive sabotage, however I think they needed to use it in order to hit eHow with the update. eHow had a number of signals (some older quality content, nice web design, syndication partnerships, tons of media exposure, etc.) which made it hard to whack it without creating too much collateral damage unless the block data was used.
In the first two weeks of January, 0.57 percent of those who departed Google next visited a site operated by Demand Media ... by mid-April, with the full suite of Panda updates in place, Demand was feeling the pain. As of April 16, it accounted for only 0.34 percent of Google’s downstream, a 40 percent decline from the start of 2011.
Demand Media's Stock Falls 40%
Incidentally, over the past couple weeks Demand Media's stock is off roughly 40%
That article (which claimed eHow to be profitable as hell, a fuzzy claim depending on how one accounts for content depreciation) was aimed at trying to position Demand for an IPO and to try to pull in more media syndication partnerships.
What it did was inflame the web community & encourage others to play the same game & create content farms based on the blueprint Demand gave away. When a piece of marketing either pisses off almost everyone & encourages many of the people who are not pissed off to compete directly against you & cut your margins it is not a successful marketing approach.
A reason it was so easy for journalists to claim bad things about Demand Media was that the wages were so low that they didn't practically allow for any in-depth research to be done (unless a person was willing to work far below minimum wage). Thus when journalists started to dig into eHow's business model they got eHow writers to state things like:
"I was completely aware that I was writing crap," she said. "I was like, 'I hope to God people don't read my advice on how to make gin at home because they'll probably poison themselves.'
"Never trust anything you read on eHow.com," she said, referring to one of Demand Media's high-traffic websites, on which most of her clips appeared
The larger your scale is the easier it is to find something wrong with what you are doing. 1% of a really big number is much greater than 10% of a rather small number. If you are cutting corners & operating at scale & create a lot of enemies then I wish you the best of luck, because you are going to need it!
In spite of letting a few things fall through the cracks, to this day there are some OUTRAGEOUS eHow titles. A friend showed me a couple and after 5 minutes of searching I found:
How to Pick Your Nose The Proper Way ehow.com/how_5722363_pick-nose-proper-way.html
How to Pick Your Nose or Scratch Surreptitiously ehow.com/how_2181862_pick-nose-scratch-surreptitiously.html
How to Effectively Pick Your Nose ehow.com/how_5067366_effectively-pick-nose.html
Exploring Other Orifaces
How to Fart ehow.com/how_2151823_fart.html
How to Stop Farting ehow.com/how_4785860_stop-farting.html
How to Muffle a Fart ehow.com/how_2320127_muffle-fart.html
How to Poop in the Woods ehow.com/how_2179463_poop-woods.html
How to Not Get an Ehow Article Erased ehow.com/how_5570908_not-ehow-article-erased.html
How to Slack at Work (and not get caught) ehow.com/how_4522164_slack-work-not-caught.html
How to Slack Off at Work and Not Get Caught ehow.com/how_4837878_slack-off-work-not-caught.html
How to Do Nothing at Work and Still Get Paid ehow.com/how_4430256_do-nothing-work-still-paid.html
Honing Your Social Graces & Charm School
How to Manipulate People to do Your Bidding ehow.com/how_2167832_manipulate-people-do-bidding.html
How to Get a DUI ehow.com/how_4825159_get-a-dui.html "You might think getting a DUI is as easy as getting behind the wheel of a car after drinking alcohol. But that's only half the battle. You also need to get pulled over by law enforcement and cited for it."
How to Not Be a Husband Caught Cheating ehow.com/how_5528899_not-husband-caught-cheating.html
"Don't leave trails which can and will turn into signs you're cheating. First point to remember is to not use any computer your partner has access to when you communicate via email or IM to the cohort."
AdSense Click Fraud
How to get banned from Google Adsense ehow.com/how_5740892_banned-google-adsense.html
How to Increase Your Click Through Rate with Google AdSense ehow.com/how_5203081_increase-through-rate-google-adsense.html
How to not get Caught With Google Adsense Click Fraud ehow.com/how_5979999_not-caught-google-adsense-fraud.html
Leveraging Expired Domains
Demand Media bought out a leading domain registrar named eNom & leveraged some of the expired domains with links to prop up eHow, by 301 redirecting those domains into eHow's deep pages.
eHow was not only churning out loads of shallow content, but Demand Media was also using the data gleaned from eHow to make sister sites which included auto-generated pages and feeding search engines their own results.
They Made Google Look Stupid
Doing one thing and claiming another can provide cover for some finite period of time, but ultimately when you create such a spectacle out of Google that your exploitative ways become the core marketing message for Google's competitors you know your days are numbered. And given that the Wired piece made the media hate Demand Media, there was nobody left to defend them other than folks who would also seem in some way conflicted.
Ultimately this goes back to the core issue that hurt Demand Media: branding.
Don't make Google look stupid. That is the #1 rule of SEO.