When you have scarcity you have price control. But the web makes most forms of scarcity a farce. That is why so many marketers place arbitrary limits on their offerings (like sales price ends today or we are only letting in x more customers), to make it seem as though their information is bound by some limits. Just about every idea worth selling is accessible for free if you spend enough time to sort through it all, and just about everything ends up bootlegged on eBay and Limewire.
If everything is available for free then how can we sell anything?
Is Anything Really Free?
The truth is nothing is free. The stuff that is pitched as free is usually an ad, or wrapped in ads. You don't know if someone is getting paid for their words, you don't know their qualifications or motives, and you don't know if they have philosophical interests setting their goals for how your opinions and worldviews should be shaped.
How Good Information Stays Hidden
Beyond that unknown ad / bias / other influence, the other problem with free information is that it is often hard to find the best parts.
Some sectors of the web are entirely invisible. A friend has published a great blog for months now, which has 0 traction because without marketing nobody can find her site or subscribe to it.
Sometimes garbage information is easily accessible because of high affiliate payout schemes, manipulative public relations budgets, authoritative websites cashing in publishing junk content, or because the self reinforcing nature of authority (especially on the web).
As forums grow in popularity they become a sea of noise. How do you rate the best threads? How do you keep them separate from the noise and make them easy to find?
Old blogs do the same as their information ages AND much of the information becomes inaccessible due to depth and breadth of information coupled with poor information architecture and comment systems that place great comments next to junk. It sometimes takes me a half hour to find stuff I posted, and I am a good searcher with a great memory.
The link graph solves part of this problem by making it easy to locate what is popular, but popularity and quality are not one and the same. Popularity is more aligned with brand strength, marketing budget, who came to market early, and who is controversial than it is with information quality.
Onsite vs Offsite Marketing Spend Mismatch
Given that many people are selling the same ideas and similar products, packaging and formatting are key to maintaining profit margins.
How much does Google make? We spend a near endless sum of money bring people to our sites, but how much do we spend on ensuring our sites are easy to use and convert well? Usually there is a big miss-match between onsite and offsite spending. If we optimize the on site experience we have a higher visitor value and can afford to pay more for advertising, thus gaining a larger marketshare or allowing us to raise our rates to filter out the low end of the market.
Optimizing On Site User Experience
Imagine if someone recommends my site to a friend. That friend comes to the homepage and immediately jumps into the latest post. Is that an optimal experience for people new to my brand? Most likely not. It was a good idea for building the authority and mindshare of this blog in 2003, but I have done that about as well as I can with this format, and most likely there is a better way to introduce people to this site.
For over a year my tools page was worthless from a usability perspective. It was imposing, unorganized, and cluttered. Pathetic on just about every level possible. Compare the old to the new. Which looks more appealing to you? Which is more intuitive to use? Which do you trust more?
The old version put everything on one page and used headers to separate topics, whereas the new version uses category pages to separate topics. The new version also offers a brief intro at the top of each category, and many of the tool category pages also have embedded videos that further explain why the topic is important and/or offer free tips about the topic.
I still need to place breadcrumb navigation on the individual tool pages, consolidate some of the tools, and clean up some of their formatting issues, but just fixing the top level is a start. It makes it easier to access everything else.
Why is is so Important to Make Your Site Easily Usable to New People?
I recently had a search engineer tell me that they bound my book up and made it required reading for their team (which felt cool to hear), but for every person like that (who has been in the industry for many years) there are 1,000+ people just entering the field who need much more guidance.
Navigation is a form of guidance. It can scare people away or help them convert. If my site's navigation assumes everyone else knows what I know or thinks about the web the ways I do, then what could I be justified selling them, and how can I justify selling them anything?
Profitability is at the Edges of the Customer Curve
Not only is there that 1,000 to 1 ratio mentioned in the above section, but new people are also more likely to spend money than people who already feel they know everything.
Who is more likely to buy my book? A person who has been doing SEO twice as long as I have, or a person using my keyword density analyzer? Many brand managers would like consumers to believe the former, but in most cases the latter is more likely. Most of the money for information products comes from people new to the field, with some amount coming on the backend if you sell high end services.
Content Selection vs Community Growth & User Participation
Not only are new people more likely to buy, but they are also far more likely to participate in a community. Many of my friends read this blog daily, but most of them rarely leave comments. Back when I was more naive about search my topic selection naturally drew many newer readers who felt more empathy with what I was writing about, and were more likely to comment, which made my site look much larger than it was. Now that I blog about many more abstract or higher level topics I get far fewer comments, in spite of increasing site traffic month over month and year over year.
Eventually the growing traffic trend will turn the other way unless I focus more on the beginner portion of the market, and help create more brand evangelists participating on and promoting this site.
Content Targeting & Conversion
It doesn't matter how much value you create or offer if the format is bad, or fails to display the value of the product. If the communication sucks so does the product. Then if you are unwilling to change you may get bitter as you watch inferior products outsell your product without realizing that you forgot to talk to your customers using their language.
A friend of mine showed me a listing service of his that focused the homepage on sellers with little to no communication for prospective consumers. What kind of seller is going to think that site is a legitimate listing service? Google has advertising programs in the footer of their homepage in a small text link. Both of those are extremes, but you have to figure out who your customers are and gather enough attention to be able to monetize it.
Information Format & Perceived Value
Others have resold the information in my ebook in other formats for over 5 times the price (some even asked for my latest copy before their launch, telling me about it). Good on them for formatting information in a way that allows them to deliver value. It does not matter who creates the most value. What matters is who is best at formatting it and sharing it in a way that makes people happy when they consume it. People are likely to gravitate toward channels that are positive because the market for something to believe in is infinite.
For most business owners how you structure your website and communicate with prospects day in and day out to gain their trust and attention is more important than your salesletter or product quality.
The one scarcity that will continue to grow scarcer as markets saturate is attention. If you have the attention of people at the beginning of the sales cycle likely you will have it at the other end as well, but you have to keep marketing to keep people talking about you and help your business grow.
Much like Google created a onebox for music, Seth Godin noticed they are now aggressively pushing onebox results for book searches. With Universal search, these verticals not only hit the top of the results, but also backfill in the organic results.
I searched Google for college * grant and 15 of the top 30 results were from books.google.com! I couldn't reproduce a screenshot with 15 out of 30, but did get this one with 13 out of 30. Sure that is an obscure query, but how long until books show up more heavily for popular queries? It is almost worth setting up a quasi-publishing house to publish no name authors with Earth-moving tomes like:
Texas Holdem Poker, Blackjack, and Other Easy & Legal Ways to Make a Living Online
Forex Uncovered: Make Millions Trading Currency in Your Underwear
Online Pornography Review: The Complete Picture Guide to the Hottest Adult Fetish, Genres, Niches, & Sub-niches
Buy Viagra Online: Why is it so Cheap and Easy?
Call Viva, the Las Vegas Stripper: the Best Deals in Travel, Hotels, Shows, Girls, Escorts, Coupons & More from a Girl Who Knows the Town
The seedier the industry the more value there is in having a book published, but can books contain affiliate links? ;)
If Google is willing to give 20% of a search result to books (carrying Google ads), 20% to video (carrying Google ads), 10% to news results, 10% to Wikipedia, 10% to .gov, and 10% to .edu then suddenly we are all fighting for crumbs. In a market like that, perhaps the top 1 or 2 players get a near monopoly advantage, and thus becoming a leading blog (or other leading editorial voice) makes even more sense than it does in the current marketplace.
I recently got asked if I wanted to make a post flaming a bunch of people for buying links for SEO from sites that obviously do not pass any link juice. I decided not to because there would be no value add to doing so and I would just be making many people angry.
If you are trying to build a profitable and sustainable brand it is much easier to talk about how smart people are rather than how dumb we are. When you are negative it cuts directly into your sales. Not only does it lower your immediate sales (you can see it in the conversion rate numbers), but it also sacrifices a portion of your authority and credibility (future distribution and sales), while drawing a cynical following that is unlikely to buy much of anything (beyond a good conspiracy theory, at least). As an added bonus, if you get too many cynical people in your community they will also prevent others from wanting to join it. Perceived success or failure becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.
When I posted about some of the hand editing Google does, even though that is good information for SEOs to be aware of, it caused my sales to drop because some people thought the goal was a personal vendetta:
I have been reading your blog for about 6 months now, and there has been a major step change in your post's tone. They have gone from useful idea driven content to rants about Google. Be careful the blog isn't twisted in to your personal vendetta as I'm sure you will see a big change in your audience as a result.
The reason there was a step change in what I posted about was because my experience had a step change. Knowing Google wiped away 10,000+ organic backlinks to one of your sites would probably change your perspective as well, especially if you literally had built 10,000+ clean links.
I kept pounding away at the important and non-consistent issues I felt about Google as I thought it through (manual editing coupled with a lack of respect for copyright, and how that game hurts many sites by holding back their true potential by helping them become addicted to Google). I believe in principals enough to kill my income in the process. Naive or smart? Depends on the goal I guess.
It is pretty hard to improve Google's SEO policies from a single SEO blog, or think that posting a personal vendetta will do much other than hurt your sales, but if you think something is unjust and mention it then maybe people with more authority start talking about it, and eventually what you do not like has a chance to change.
Your pain is well understood and shared by many people. It's frustrating. We've waited many years for this but they're focused on video copyright theft right now. All those issues on YouTube now are applicable to webpages. Aaron Wall had a good rant where he poked at Google and said they don't care about copyright. The good news is that a lot more people are being vocal about duplicate content, so maybe we'll get better tools in the future to verify the original source of the information.
So that is a start, but perhaps my formatting could have been a bit better to have a stronger impact.
There are many ways to deliver a message. Take John Andrews's Understanding the Google... the post is great. It offers a significant amount of well structured great advice, but due to the negative tone of it, it probably isn't going to spread too far:
Is Google 'right' in it's approach to the web? Is Google 'just' in it's delivery of the carrot and the stick? Is Google 'fair' in the way it operates? None of that matters to the search marketer/SEO. If these attacks are funded as diversions to keep Google busy or otherwise threaten it's dominance, I understand. But if you're interested in ranking well in Google, this is all nonsense. You need to get to know Google, and listen to what Google says. You don't need to agree, and please, stop whining.
Who wants to spread the message Google owns the web, and if you don't like the way they do it you can go f*ck yourself? Not many, I am guessing. And even if that was not the intent of his post, some people will view it that way because of the structure.
Even companies like Apple can't keep secrets or prevent their latest gadgets from getting hacked. If your market is competitive (and if it is worth being in, it probably is) there is (or will soon be) someone who talks about every day as though the sun is a bit brighter than the last. It is hard to compete with that unless you can format messages in a similar packaging.
When everyone recycles each other's content it all comes down to who has the best analogies and biggest hopes. Who believes in an idea enough to get others to believe in them enough to spread their view of the world (or at least their view of their market)? Build people up and they will be proud to syndicate your message.
Look at Frank Schilling in the domain market, or Seth Godin on marketing. Compare those to the tone of Threadwatch. Threadwatch could build buzz, but could it ever sell anything?
If a message has positive hooks it is much more likely to spread quickly. In 3 years Tal Ben-Shahar's Harvard course on positive psychology went from 8 students to over 900 students, largely due to word of mouth marketing.
It is much easier to spread stories, build a brand, and sell stuff if you are talking up positive things. It is much harder to do so if you are too crass and/or too cynical. Ultimately you still have to be comfortable with what you are doing, but there is a noticeable tax on honesty unless it is well structured or generally positive in nature.
I hope this post didn't sound too stupid, and please send in love or hate using the form below. ;)
As high authority sites attract brand advertisers many of their owners look for ways to create additional pageviews to further scale their businesses. I offered a few tips on how to do that here, but an annoying trend that has recently swept across the web is turning external links into internal links.
If you look at blog mentions on Technorati it is hard to get to the page actually linking to you. Technorati mixes in outbound links and Technorati profile pages without differentiating between the two. Some people are also creating thin sister sites, using bait and switch linking. The Wikipedia practice of link hoarding is just starting to spread. How long until the mainstream media companies create thin review sections and start publishing pages or stubs about everything?
Google Maps shows local rentals, homes for sale, and foreclosures. The real estate data is one of their featured content categories, searchable by location, and sortable by price. How long until Google starts charging for featured real estate listings or pushes this offer more aggressively to the end homeowner?
Helium announced the launch of their article marketplace. Arbitrage giant Geosign is on the client list, scooping up automotive articles. Some of the article descriptions show that the goal is to get just enough content to wrap ads around it, in true arbitrage style:
Collect the latest news about Honda (or another car manufacturer of your choosing). Summarize the news. How does this news affect the average Honda owner? Before you write, make sure that you do some research. Take a look at the latest articles on Google News, the latest automotive blogs on Technorati, and any other online sources you feel are relevant. Max 350 word count.
Some of the other publishers are looking for a bit more meat, but all are likely sharing their marketing strategies with anyone willing to take a look.
How They Should Have Launched
If they were trying to make a big splash at launch time they sent the wrong message. They should have done some co-branded marketing allowing writers to publish for traditional media sites, and/or partnered with trusted charities on important issues.
Why You Should Try Helium
The pitch at Helium is:
Real advice from real people-more than 300,000 articles. Why should you waste your time wading through search results when what you really want is the knowledge that comes with first-hand experience?
Do a bunch of underpaid freelance writers on a generalist site about writing filter through the world's information better than Google or other sites that crawl and index the web? Not likely. For example, I just went to Technorati, and discovered this video is currently popular, with 44 people linking to it
How can a closed off network compete with the web as a whole? It is slower and of lower quality, and will always be that way. Plus it has a spamming incentive baked into the pay structure.
Will the marketplace be a vibrant one, or will the site be a noise filled AdSense honeypot that results in watered down content clogging up the search results? With about a half million pages already indexed in Google you would think Hellium should have more than 14 advertisers signed up. Once writers start tracking their AdSense profit-share results and the site starts ranking for more competitive phrases how many erectile dysfunction articles do you think will get published? The same thing will happen to it that happened to Squidoo.
Human Focused Near Markov Chain Content Websites
Content for everyone about everything by everyone websites are going to make search engines more aggressive in filtering how deep they are willing to crawl these types of sites. If they are not, it won't be long until AssociatedContent, Helium, eHow, WeHow, WikiHow, Yahoo! Answers, UK.Answers.Yahoo.com, Wordpress.com (I have seen PR6 automated splogs on Wordpress based on aggressive tagging) and a few other similar sites join Wikipedia, YouTube, eBay, subdomain.ebay.com, and Amazon as Google's top 10 results for everything. And then the newspapers will respond by getting more aggressive with pumping out garbage content. Some deep pocketed domainers may also look at the success or failure of sites like WeHow to help determine their longterm strategy.
What signal does Google want to send? Will Google ever try to regulate how you acquire content? Will any of the content sources eventually be deemed bad in a similar light to how Google tries to manipulate public perception about buying link based advertisements?
Hiring Great Writers
With more people trying to solve the content problem it is getting easier to scale and look large even if you are solo. If you have an arbitrage website or authoritative website and just need backfill content then sites like Helium might fit your needs, but if you are looking for higher quality writers search around for stories about how Gawker got built, search for thought topical leaders in the blogosphere and offer them similar salaries, and perhaps post an ad on Craigslist or the Problogger Job Boards.
If you value your time in the longrun it is cheaper to hire a great employee rather than filter through the noise hoping to find a star.
Discovering the Hellium Experience
I am off to go read about contacting aliens, the truth about Kennedy, debt consolidation mortgage loan, what you need to know to apply for a credit card, how to get an instant approval credit card, uses of Viagra, hypoactive sexual desire disorder, and best places to bet online. All the best bits of the web in one spot. They even have what is spam, but it's not comprehensive enough. There is no mention of Helium. ;)
Any independent webmaster who has been making good money on the web for a few years has realized that blending ads in content, or distributing ads as content, is much more profitable than a clean separation of church and state. Jakob Nielson recently wrote about usability research showing that people ignore ads unless they look like content and are in the content area of the page. Once a publisher has enough distribution they claim it is unethical to blend content and ads, but if you look close enough at the publisher and advertiser relationships there are overlaps in virtually every category and on every site. There are numerous well known sites in the search space that would never give me any exposure until AFTER I bought ads at their site, which mentioned me regularly after my ad buy.
Here are a few examples of how ads influence editorial:
Some advertisers get mentioned just because they advertise a lot, while many publishers create content around high profit niches, and others organize their editorial content based on votes and usage data that can be bought (indirectly) through their ad network (think StumbleUpon and Google AdWords).
If your solution to the issue of low profit margins in publishing is to aggressively blend low value ads then you are eventually going to fail. As a publisher then there are at least 7 major ways to compete against others who are practicing and profiting from the blend, without being labeled as unethical, or undermining your own growth potential:
branding & positioning: create a brand or service that sounds informational and content-like even though it is an ad (think Bankrate, which likely pays virtually nothing to syndicate their ads as content to many major newspapers)
segregate: keep your main content stream free of ads, build authority, and create an offers section on your site
be pure: don't publish any ads, wait until you have a strong brand, and then launch a better business model than competing channels
indirect revenues: use your site to build mindshare, brand awareness, status, and expertise. then cash in on that via indirect revenue streams
move yourself up the value chain: instead of selling AdSense or similar related ads, sell one of your own products and services. you can typically place these ads in-line without as much scrutiny or brand damage as blending someone else's ads in your content (see below)
free user content: if you can create a platform and rule-set that allows others to build value on your idea while drawing enough of an audience to sort signal from noise you can profit heavily from that (think forums, Technorati tags, Yahoo! Answers, Digg, or Google)
Do you have any additional ideas for profiting from integration without being labeled as unethical?
MYTH #2: Copyright was created for artists.
FACT: It was the exact opposite. When copyright was created in the Middle Ages of England, it was about censorship. The printing press had just been invented, and people were publishing of all kinds of writings and reprinting text from throughout history. Parliament feared it, so it set up a corporation with powers to enforce an exclusive printing monopoly.
MYTH #3: Copyright protects artists.
FACT: It protects the publishers, and few artists earn the majority of their income from it. In fact, many artists see no money from it at all--it all goes to their publishers.
MYTH #4: Copyright prevents plagiarism.
FACT: Thanks to technology like the Internet, attribution of original authorship is easily detectable, especially when works are published. In many cases, plagiarism (e.g. taking the successful work of one artist and re-selling it under your name) is even EASIER to detect by performing a Google search than via the United States Copyright Office.
Copyright laws made more sense in the age of printing presses, but in the age of the Internet it is irrelevant. Distribution does not require significant investment by publishers. In the video Karl also said the following quote about what he thought fair copyright law should resemble:
Your name can not be stripped and no one else can claim credit for it. That is credit, reputation is a non renewable resource. It can not be replicated. It can not be copied. To the degree that someone takes credit for your stuff, that's the degree to which you lose credit. It is always proportional.
I agree that current copyright law is messed up, but so is the way that Google handles what they deem to be search spam.
A work can be a collection of keywords and a navigational structure as much as it is a set piece of content. Trusted sites keep building more trust due to their visibility while untrusted sites have to send email spam or do other types of buzz related marketing to gain awareness.
Most large industries have regulatory bodies or rating systems which aim to keep power where it lies. I recently watched Kirby Dick's This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a film about the MPAA ratings board.
The MPAA ratings board is composed of what is deemed as typical moral parents, but they play up to support large movie studios. If a film is rated NC17 some studios won't release it, and even if they will it is hard to advertise the movie.
Matt stone, one of the creators of South Park, mentioned that when he tried to get an independent film reviewed they gave it a NC17 rating, and would not say why because they said if they gave specific reasons they would be practicing censorship. Later on he got Team America reviewed, and they gave him a laundry list of what specifically needed to be changed to avoid an NC17 rating.
Some of the absurdity of the movie ratings game include the likes of good ratings for violence in movies (especially without blood), but non missionary sexual intercourse is not proper. The support for violence in unsurprising given the absurd number of movies that run military ads prior to starting the film. The military is not only a leading advertisers, but if a producer needs military stuff to create a movie, the pentagon has to view the film before public does.
Virtually every large market has some form of censorship / reviews board. The stuff they censor is likely a large market waiting to be tapped. If they are unwilling to target those markets because of fear of blowback from advertisers that presents a large targeted audience and strong monetization strategy for independent creators.
TechCrunch recently highlighted how most of Glam's growth has come from the combination of shallow pure SEO play to pump pageview stats and syndicating their ads on other related sites to further pump the success story, all while the network is projected to lose over $20 million this year. But VentureBeat also noted that the growth is significant enough that Google wants to do a custom ad deal with them.
Marchex recently had a brutal quarter which drove their stock price down to $9 a share. Their site development process was far too broad and far too shallow. They need to start developing their top domains or sell them off to someone who will leverage them for their full value. In response to Marchex's down quarter Sahar Sarid asked what they should do and got this brilliant comment:
What is the business model hereâ€¦ we got out sites indexed by Google but the users had a shit experience and BTW our indexed sites make nothing compared to if we just parked them. Come on - it not really very hard to figure it out- take the top 30 golden domains and build them into authority sites NOT openlist scrape sites but bankrate.comâ€™s
As markets consolidate, 2 of the biggest determiners of who will win a market are going to be
brand perception and AdWords ad budget.
Brand perception: Google gives brands a discount on AdWords ad prices while price gouging smaller competitors, which subsidizes the value of building a brand. If BMW spams, Google is afraid to remove BMW from their index for very long. If a smaller site does something that is borderline gray and comes under scrutiny Google may penalize the domain and pay an AdSense spammer for stealing that content and keeping it in the Google index. It all feels a bit like the mafia, but this is Google's way to extort you and kill smaller market players without being branded as a corporate criminal.
AdWords ad budget: if you are blowing millions a month on Google AdWords then Google will be more likely to white list your sites and less likely to penalize you for white-label clone sites, robotic content, subdomain spam, or bought links.
Even if you lose money on the main brand, it still allows you to backfill with high margin garbage with limited risk from Google. What are the odds of Google doing anything about this BizJournals spam? If you want to monetize garbage you have to put one star brand at the center of it to mitigate you risk profile.