SWOT Analysis for Web Publishers

The rapid changes in the search industry over the last sixteen months have left many web publishers wondering whether they should pivot their business models or exist the industry entirely. This is a difficult question for business owners who have invested years of their lives and much of their wealth in firms which may no longer be viable contenders in the "new" search industry.

SWOT analysis is a technique which business owners can use to strategically analyze their businesses in relation to their competitors and the marketplace as a whole. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunites, Threats.

  • Strengths are attributes of the organization which provide an advantage in the marketplace.
  • Weaknesses are attributres of the organization which cause a disadvantage in the marketplace.
  • Opportunities are actions the organization could take to create an advantage in the marketplace.
  • Threats are events which could happen in the environment and cause the organization to be disadvantaged.

The first two areas, Strengths and Weaknesses, focus primarily on the internal attributes of the organization. The last two areas, Opportunities and Threats, focus primary on how the organization may be affected by external events.

Specifics for Web Publishers

Many firms in the same industry will share similar Strengths and Weaknesses. Even more so, most firms in any industry will be responding to similar Opportunities and Threats.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Take a look at your organization. If you feel that your organization has an attribute which makes it stronger than it's competitors, add that to your Strengths list. If you feel that your organization has an attribute that makes it weaker than it's competiors, add that item to your Weaknesses list.

  • Access to Funding
  • Brand Recognition
  • Domain Authority
  • Industry Connections
  • Technical Skills
  • Marketing Savvy
  • Vertical Expertise

Examples of Strengths might include:

  • We have ready access to venture capital
  • We own a widely recognized brand name
  • We own a PageRank 8 domain
  • I have Matt Cutts on speed dial
  • Our technical team members are experts in our platforms, development tools, and applications
  • Our marketing team members can make linkbait about lug nuts go viral
  • We invented this niche and our competitors have no hope of ever catching up

Examples of Weaknesses might include:

  • Our working capital is limited to what's in my wallet
  • Our top domain is a hyphenated .us domain
  • We're hoping to gain PageRank at the next update
  • Matt Cutts blocked me on Twitter
  • Our technical team is outsourced to Pakistan
  • Our marketing team is outsourced to Bangladesh
  • I read a book about this niche and it seems very exciting

Opportunities and Threats

The same event might be an Opportunity or a Threat, depending upon how your organization can respond to it. Search is a zero-sum game. For every winner, there must be a loser.

Take a look at your organization. If you feel that your organization has the ability to benefit from a coming change in the business environment, add that to your Opportunities list. If you believe that your organization is at risk from a coming change, add that to your Threats list.

  • Our niche (travel, local, etc...) is being taken over by Google (unless you are Google)
  • Our niche is being persecuted (gambling, medication) or promoted (green energy, section 8 housing) by the government
  • Our niche is being regulated by the government, which benefits large companies and hurts small ones
  • Our niche is being increasingly dominated by the top brands (unless you are one of the top brands)
  • Our niche is growing (iPads) or shrinking (Blackberries)
  • Profitability in this niche is rising (medical training) or falling (almost everything else)
  • Some marketing tactics may be filtered or penalized (directory submissions, blog commenting, profile building)
  • Significant competitors are entering (or leaving) the niche

Examples of Opportunities might include:

  • Legislation could force consumers or businesses to buy our goods and services
  • Government regulation could force small competitors out of the market, and we're a large competitor
  • Google is increasingly ranking the top brands for all searches, and we're a top brand
  • Our niche is growing
  • Profitability in the niche is rising
  • Our marketing tactics are being increasingly rewarded by the search engines
  • Our niche has significant barriers to entry which prevent competitors from entering the market

Examples of Threats might include:

  • Legislation could make our business illegal in our country
  • Government regulation could force small competitors out of the market, and we're one of those small competitors
  • Google is increasingly ranking the top brands for all searches, and we're not a top brand
  • Our niche is shrinking
  • Profitability in the niche is falling -- unless you can operate on thinner margins than your competitors and take their market share when they fail
  • Our marketing tactics are being increasingly filtered or penalized by the search engines
  • One of our competitors just did an interview with Forbes bragging about the high profit margins in this niche

Responding to the Results of Your Analysis

After listing your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats you should have a pretty good idea where your business stands. From here, it's time to take advantage of this new knowledge.

The web publishing industry is currently undergoing a major contraction. Some organizations will choose to continue in this business, while others will choose to pivot into related business or to exit the industry entirely. AdSense publishers may decide to move into affiliate marketing or selling white label products. Web publishers may decide to halt development on their own projects and offer their services as SEO's to large enterprises. Entrepreneurs may simply close their companies and accept positions with larger firms.

If your niche is travel, which Google is slowly taking over and Wikimedia is considering a push into, you might consider moving to a different niche, pivoting your web publishing business into an SEO firm, or moving into the nascent eBook market. If your niche is 3D printers, you might seek funding to stake out early market share in a niche that may be about to cross the chasm from the early adopter stage of development.

If you have deep knowledge, experience, and connections in your niche, you might try to stick with it and be the last man standing after your weaker competitors have failed. If your knowledge is less niche focused and more related to publishing and marketing, you might sell SEO services or take a job with one of the huge multinational brands which Google is currently favoring in the SERPs.

If you have access to large amount of venture capital, you might take advantage of that to become one of the large brands which Google prefers to rank. With enough funding, anything can be ranked well in Google. I would caution, however, against entering a niche which is likely to be on Google's roadmap. Google, in being able to control the order of search results, has an unbeatable advantage in promoting their own properties (YouTube, Google+, etc...).

As margins in the industry are falling in our race to the bottom, you may even find a significant competitive advantage in having a lower cost structure than your competitors. Lower costs create larger amounts of retained earnings which can be used to fuel development and growth.

Summary

The two most important aspects of SWOT analysis are to be honest with yourself and to take action based upon your analysis. As Virgil wrote, fortune favors the bold. Be bold in your honesty and your actions and fortune will smile upon you.


Will Spencer is the CEO of MemeBridge and Alpha Geek at The Tech FAQ.

Online Journalism: eHow, Journatic & Narrative Science

Jul 17th

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Online Journalism & Sausage Factories.

Top 10 List of Top 10 Lists for your Top 10 List Compilation

A lot of amazing technology is being created.

The Only Constant is Change

When you think of all the implications of the above video (and all the things that are going on in machine learning & search), it can be somewhat difficult to think about sustainable strategies.

Want to fund in-depth automotive reviews in part based on your organic rankings? That business model breaks down when the organic SERPs move below the fold.

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.

During the creation of any new communications network there are amazing opportunities, but over time they get arbitraged away & returns move more toward the typical norm in business as the platform gets locked down.

No Longer An Isolated Channel

The web is becoming more & more like the physical world (and is merging with 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 the offline world there are many hoops one has to jump through to win and the online market is just becoming more like that & at an accelerating rate due to network effects that allow big companies to saturate channels & tracking leading to asymmetrical advantages.

From Meritocracy to Corporatocracy

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. But then size became 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"

The last of those 3 points is a big deal. Consider how popular music is & that Machinima drives about 2/3 as many video streams as all of VEVO does & yet Google invested directly into it. That gives Google power to rank the content (Google serps), host the content (YouTube), monetize the content (ads), and have an ownership stake in the content. All that is in addition to owning a browser, an operating system (make that two) & building hardware.

If Google's internal stats show someone else is catching up to a channel they invested in, Google can...

  • relay this news across to drive editorial quality, content quantity, or even ad placement
  • preferentially promote the network they are invested in (free ads, better rankings, more "you might also like" recommendations, more post-view recommendations)
  • give a higher revenue share to the network they are invested in (or offer them early access to new betas and exclusives that increase monetization)
  • slow the growth of the competing network by using more aggressive ad placement (or lower CPM ads)
  • slow upload speeds for competing channels
  • etc.

If you are batting for the home team, such advantages are great. But they blow for everyone else in the ecosystem.

Those sorts of issues don't just appear in a few isolated incidents, but appear over and over again.

Social networks should be open, unless they are Google+.

Affiliate links shouldn't count for ranking purposes, unless they are Viglink, which Google invested in. ;)

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

A bigger company can always shut a site down, split off into sections, & so on. Plus if you are a bigger company you are more likely to enjoy the benefit of the doubt.

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.

After this year's FUD there is zero camaraderie in the industry.

That's How Business Works

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

Perhaps they're right:

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.

Which Source Do You Trust Most?

Apr 15th

Consumer Search Insights.

Which do you trust most as a source of advice on important issues?

People tend to trust friends & family and the mainstream media far more than they trust websites & search engines.

Vote All (1204) 
friends & family 37.1% (+3.0 / -2.9)
newspapers 32.5% (+3.0 / -2.8)
search engines 19.3% (+2.6 / -2.4)
social media websites 6.7% (+2.0 / -1.6)
weblogs 4.4% (+1.9 / -1.3)

Relative to one another, men tend to trust newspapers, search engines & weblogs more; whereas women tend to trust friends & family and social media websites more.

Vote Men (643)  Women (561) 
friends & family 34.7% (+4.0 / -3.8) 39.4% (+4.6 / -4.4)
newspapers 34.1% (+4.0 / -3.8) 31.0% (+4.4 / -4.1)
search engines 20.1% (+3.5 / -3.1) 18.6% (+3.9 / -3.4)
social media websites 5.7% (+2.5 / -1.8) 7.6% (+3.3 / -2.3)
weblogs 5.5% (+2.5 / -1.8) 3.4% (+3.3 / -1.7)

The youngest age group tends to trust social media a bit more & newspapers a bit less than other age groups do. Outside of that, it is somewhat hard to see other age-based patterns.

Vote 18-24 year-olds (278)  25-34 year-olds (307)  35-44 year-olds (158)  45-54 year-olds (191)  55-64 year-olds (166)  65+ year-olds (104) 
friends & family 39.8% (+5.8 / -5.5) 34.2% (+5.8 / -5.4) 38.9% (+7.8 / -7.2) 34.0% (+6.9 / -6.3) 36.3% (+7.6 / -6.9) 37.2% (+9.8 / -8.8)
newspapers 26.2% (+5.5 / -4.8) 35.8% (+5.9 / -5.5) 33.9% (+7.7 / -6.9) 31.7% (+6.8 / -6.1) 33.1% (+7.6 / -6.8) 34.6% (+10.0 / -8.8)
search engines 19.7% (+5.1 / -4.2) 16.8% (+4.9 / -4.0) 17.7% (+6.7 / -5.2) 23.5% (+6.5 / -5.5) 21.8% (+7.1 / -5.7) 17.7% (+8.5 / -6.2)
social media websites 11.0% (+4.2 / -3.1) 6.8% (+3.6 / -2.4) 3.6% (+5.1 / -2.1) 7.4% (+4.6 / -2.9) 4.3% (+4.5 / -2.3) 6.6% (+8.0 / -3.8)
weblogs 3.3% (+2.8 / -1.5) 6.4% (+3.5 / -2.3) 6.0% (+5.1 / -2.9) 3.4% (+4.1 / -1.9) 4.4% (+5.3 / -2.5) 3.9% (+7.4 / -2.6)

Here is data by geographic region.

Vote The US Midwest (252)  The US Northeast (311)  The US South (372)  The US West (269) 
friends & family 40.2% (+6.9 / -6.6) 39.0% (+6.2 / -5.9) 34.9% (+5.3 / -5.0) 36.1% (+6.2 / -5.8)
newspapers 30.4% (+6.8 / -6.1) 36.0% (+6.1 / -5.7) 33.7% (+5.2 / -4.9) 29.9% (+6.1 / -5.5)
search engines 21.5% (+6.4 / -5.3) 15.7% (+5.2 / -4.1) 18.7% (+4.6 / -3.9) 21.2% (+5.5 / -4.6)
social media websites 6.7% (+5.1 / -3.0) 5.2% (+4.3 / -2.4) 6.6% (+3.8 / -2.5) 7.9% (+4.5 / -3.0)
weblogs 1.3% (+9.5 / -1.1) 4.1% (+4.3 / -2.1) 6.2% (+3.6 / -2.3) 4.8% (+4.3 / -2.3)

Rural people tend to trust friends & family more, while urban people tend to trust newspapers more.

Vote Urban areas (602)  Rural areas (91)  Suburban areas (480) 
friends & family 30.9% (+4.4 / -4.0) 45.8% (+11.3 / -10.9) 38.7% (+4.9 / -4.7)
newspapers 38.5% (+4.7 / -4.5) 25.4% (+11.3 / -8.7) 30.0% (+4.5 / -4.2)
search engines 18.4% (+4.2 / -3.6) 20.2% (+10.4 / -7.5) 20.2% (+4.3 / -3.7)
social media websites 8.5% (+4.1 / -2.8) 2.3% (+14.6 / -2.1) 6.2% (+4.3 / -2.6)
weblogs 3.7% (+4.2 / -2.0) 6.3% (+11.2 / -4.2) 4.8% (+4.3 / -2.3)

The richer you are, the less you generally trust friends & family. The rich also trust newspapers & blogs more (though the blog data point had a small sample size).

Vote People earning $0-24K (138)  People earning $25-49K (655)  People earning $50-74K (307)  People earning $75-99K (81)  People earning $100-149K (25) 
friends & family 40.6% (+8.7 / -8.2) 38.2% (+4.1 / -4.0) 33.9% (+6.3 / -5.8) 36.6% (+11.1 / -9.8) 14.4% (+19.1 / -9.1)
newspapers 25.6% (+9.1 / -7.4) 30.6% (+4.0 / -3.7) 37.0% (+6.4 / -6.0) 42.2% (+10.6 / -10.0) 42.2% (+20.3 / -18.0)
search engines 22.8% (+9.1 / -7.1) 20.6% (+3.7 / -3.3) 17.4% (+5.7 / -4.5) 13.4% (+10.9 / -6.4) 22.0% (+21.5 / -12.7)
social media websites 7.2% (+9.2 / -4.2) 7.0% (+3.2 / -2.3) 5.4% (+5.6 / -2.8) 5.2% (+13.2 / -3.9) 5.8% (+23.7 / -4.9)
weblogs 3.8% (+11.0 / -2.9) 3.6% (+3.5 / -1.8) 6.3% (+5.4 / -3.0) 2.6% (+18.2 / -2.3) 15.6% (+21.7 / -10.2)

Content Locking Ads

Apr 10th

Consumer Search Insights.

Google recently launched a consumer insights survey product, which quizes users for access to premium content.

How do users get access to these poll questions? Google locks premium content behind them, likeso:

Google has long stated that "cloaking is bad" and that it was deceptive & users didn't like it. Earlier this year Google also rolled out an algorithm to penalize sites that were too ad heavy:

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?

Response Vote
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.

Vote Men (811) Women (409)
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.

Vote 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. ;)

vote 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?

vote 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.

vote 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) Insufficient data
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) Insufficient data
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) Insufficient data

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.

...but...

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?

Google Instant Answers: Rich Snippets & Poor Webmasters

This is a pretty powerful & instructive image in terms of "where search is headed."

It's a Yahoo! Directory page that was ranking in the Google search results on a Google Android mobile device.

Note the following

  • the page is hosted on Google.com
  • 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
editorial 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.
hosting Bing hosts Bing search results using Bing snippets. Google hosts Yahoo! Directory results using Yahoo! Directory listing content & keeps all the user data.
attribution 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.
ads Bing sells their own ads & is not scraping Google content wholesale. Google scrapes Yahoo! Directory content wholesale & strips out the sidebar CPC ads.
search box Bing puts their own search box on their own website. Google puts their own search box on the content of the Yahoo! Directory.
user behavior 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.

Is Bryson Meunier Full Of Manure? Learn Why SEO Consultants Push Brand

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.

Panda 2.5...and Youtube Wins Again

On September 28th, Google rolled out Panda 2.5. Yet again Youtube is the #1 site on the leader board, while even some branded sites like MotorTrend were clipped, and sites that had past recovered from Panda (like Daniweb) were hit once more. In the zero sum game of search, Google's Android.com joins YouTube on the leader board.

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. :)

References for the above video:

Algorithmic Journalism & The Rise of Corporate Content Farms

Sep 12th

The "Best" of Big Media

Large publishers who lobbied Google hard for a ranking boost got it when Panda launched:

“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:

Machine Generated Journalism

Where Google winds up in trouble on this front is when start ups that create machine generated content go mainstream. (Unless Google buys them, then it is more free content for Google!)

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."

Once again, even the lowest paid humans are too expensive when compared against the cost of robots.

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.

Google has no problem promoting their own affiliate network, investing in other affiliate networks, or inserting themselves as the affiliate.

Google is also fine with Google scraping 3rd party data & creating a content farm that inserts themselves in the traffic stream. After they have damaged the ecosystem badly enough they can then buy out a 2nd or 3rd tier market player for pennies on the Dollar & integrate them into a Google product featured front & center. (It is not hard to be better than the rest of the market after you have sucked the profits out of the vertical & destroyed the business models of competitors).

Others don't have the ability to arbitrarily insert themselves into the traffic stream. They have to earn the exposure. But if other people want to play the affiliate game, they need to have "brand."

Affiliates Not Welcome in the Google AdWords Marketplace

At Affiliate Summit last year Google's Frederick Vallaeys basically stated that they appreciated the work of affiliates, but as the brands have moved in the independent affiliates have largely become unneeded duplication in the AdWords ad system. To quote him verbatim, "just an unnecessary step in the sales funnel."

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.
Sincerely,
Carole

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.

What is worse, is that in many instances, Google considers networks of similar sites to be spam. Yet at the same time the quickly growing Google Ventures is investing in companies like Whaleshark Media - a roll up currently consisting of 7 *exceptionally* similar websites in the same vertical.

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.

Google showing you "closed in error" wouldn't be such a big deal if they didn't copy code, violate patents, deal in patents to spread their ecosystem, aggressively bundle & advertise, engage in price dumping, and behave in other anti-competitive ways to put their "incorrect facts" in front of billions of people.

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?

  • low quality
  • headline over-promises, content under-delivers
  • anonymously written
  • 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.

When Panda happened & I saw corporate doorway pages (& recycled republished tweets) ranking I hinted that we could expect this problem. I thought it would start with parasitic hosting on branded sites & maybe a few opportunistic brand extensions.

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.

Google Rips Rip Off Report From The Search Results

We live in a culture where it is far more profitable to solve symptoms than it is to solve problems. As such, the disappearance of ripoffreport.com from Google's index probably has retainer-based reputation management firms like reputation.com singing the blues.

Ed Magedson, the owner of Rip Off Report, has been charged with RICO in the past and managed to come through unscathed, but he has never tackled an opponent as media savvy or powerful as Google.

He is pretty savvy with the legal system & the media, so it will be fun to watch how he responds to this one, as his business model relies relied on top Google rankings:

Attorney: So what I've gathered from all of your testimony, Dickson, is that Ed Magedson has indirectly told you that he is responsible for making posts about companies. He will make these posts.

Mr. Woodard: Yes.

Attorney: And then he will manipulate the search engines; is that true?

Mr. Woodard: No question about the search engines. That's where the money is made.

A new take on Will it Blend: can a vampire suck blood from another vampire?

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.

Update: adding intrigue to the situation, it looks like the site was removed due to a request inside Google Webmaster Tools, but the folks from ROR claimed they didn't make the removal request: "Ripoff Report did not intentionally request Google to delist the website, and we are still investigating what occured."

Update 2: Looks like they are back ranking in Google again. Perhaps someone found yet another loophole with Google's URL removal feature.

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