What is Content? When is Publishing a Commodity?

People Tolerate (and Expect) Ads:

As Google's ad network gets more efficient and Google controls more bits, almost everything in any commercial market is going to sell something, subsidize another commercial interest, or have ads on it. To appreciate how much this trend will grow, just read the comments on my post about using custom search engines. Many of the comments are insightful, but almost nobody appreciated that not having ads in your internal site search result was a value add for a commercial site. If you look at blog search results for shower gel you will see Google's version of the web. Google and Microsoft already own in game advertisement firms. With Google bidding billions of dollars for part of the US wireless spectrum you can bet that there are going to be even more ads between content producers and consumers.

It doesn't matter what ads appear on the publisher site if they didn't sell the ads directly themselves. Somehow the publisher is off the hook because they didn't know, and it wasn't Google's fault because the system is partially automated.

Newspapers Practicing Arbitrage

Google killed some of the scraper AdSense garbage, but now arbitrage is going mainstream, with newspapers leveraging their brands to publish thin content from freelance writers. Think of newspapers buying ISP data or mining their server logs and suggesting writers create content about crap that got a lot of traffic when Google featured their story on the homepage in the past.

Newspapers Practicing Automated Garbitrage

The above trend is going to make the most competitive keywords even harder to rank for as there will always be at least one fresh news story about every high value topic.

  • This just in...make money with the best forex platform!

  • This just in...mortgage rates are at all time lows!
  • This just in...online education is more affordable than you thought!

Google has already proved that they don't mind large publishers creating robotic content and building its authority with spammy links. Did you know that BizJournals offers Google searchers a credit card application service? If I posted similar content on this site Google would kill it.

Anyone Can do Public Relations

Beyond the recycled content, the movement will also be fueled by lazy underpaid writers who will heavily rely on social media and others work for story ideas. If you are good at spamming social media then the mainstream media will act as your megaphone without requiring you to hire a PR firm.

When is a Link Buy Legitimate?

Most profitable publishing enterprises are moving toward producing lower quality content. As a publisher, a brand is nothing more than something that allows you to practice arbitrage while appearing that you provide a valuable service. It allows you to get extra exposure and charge a higher rate for your ads.

The only difference between a smart strategic ad buy and a text link sale that Google wants you to report is the publisher's rate card.

Google Ringtone Search (Beta)... the Utility of Search & the Value of Relationships vs Data

Jul 17th

Google recently announced they are offering an ad free search service to small businesses for as little as $100 a year. They are also rumored to be working on creating a mobile search offering to search for ringtones, cell phone games, and other high margin cell phone services:

With the new system, users would search for a piece of content -- such as ringtones -- and would get back a list of companies that provide it, with links letting them easily purchase the material. Eventually, Google would charge companies for high placement in the search results, much as it does with "sponsored links" on Web search, the people familiar with the company's plans said.

If this proves effective, why wouldn't Google create search services for real estate and student loans? Off the start they likely wouldn't be any dirtier than those markets already are.

The local sites (or other niche sites) that die are the ones that don't have a supportive community...the ones that can roughly be described as data. But as you move your site away from data toward community building and user experience you increase its marketability, profitability, and longevity.

John Scott recently said

when the Internet becomes a community more than a marketplace, the community oriented merchants have the advantage.

Most general music lyric sites will lose over 90% of their traffic and value in the next 2 years. Niche value add sites like SongMeanings.net will increase in value.

Some newspapers are fighting off their own irrelevancy by publishing more ads, and becoming more irrelevant. The reason WSJ.com is worth $5 billion is because it will be one of the last newspapers surviving after many competitors are marginalized. Its brand and business relationships make it unique.

The next step for search is moving away from age and citation based trust toward user satisfaction based rating. In a recent interview Jakob Nielson said:

Of course, the big thing that has happened in the last 10 years was a change from an information retrieval oriented relevance ranking to being more of a popularity relevance ranking. And I think we can see a change maybe being a more of a usefulness relevance ranking. I think there is a tendency now for a lot of not very useful results to be dredged up that happen to be very popular, like Wikipedia and various blogs. They’re not going to be very useful or substantial to people who are trying to solve problems. So I think that with counting links and all of that, there may be a change and we may go into a more behavioral judgment as to which sites actually solve people’s problems, and they will tend to be more highly ranked.

Part of that will include collecting user feedback and personalizing results. For the commercial parts of the web, much of this will be done by search engines pushing more aggressive ad units (while using non-ads to test how far they can go), licensing content from premium publishers, and making more transactions direct to funnel traffic internally while minimizing the downside of bait and switch marketing. If Google controls the transaction they know the lead value AND the customer satisfaction stats. If something that was once good becomes spam Google controls distribution and monetization, and can kill it without a second thought.

If you are in a market that is likely to get commoditized what does your site do that makes it more than just data?

11 Unique Content Sources in Saturated Markets

Jul 10th

Hamlet Batista commented on my last post that a problem with blogging is that many people look to the same sources for inspiration and information to blog about. Even in the most saturated markets there are a wide array of unique data sources. Here are some of my favorites:

  • your own experiences - how you save time, your favorite work tips, things that slow you down, interactions with others, how your perspective has changed over time, etc.

  • encourage readers to ask you questions - use a button like this one, and run open threads where you answer questions
  • find common questions in forums that are typically poorly answered - why doesn't Google show all my backlinks and why hasn't my PageRank changed? etc.
  • common misconceptions in your marketplace which are spread as fact - new websites can't rank, etc
  • interview other experts, create interactive contests, offer awards, etc. - these touches the ego of others and uses their reach to help market your site
  • bring back old classics that are not talked about too much in the current marketplace and compare them to the current market. You can't go wrong bringing up Orwell's Politics and the English Language, Bush's As We May Think, Hardin's The Tragedy of the Commons
  • show how your topical language has shifted - compare news from the 1950s to today, there are many stories from the 1980s and earlier which are easily accessible via Google News, but have not been pushed heavily on the web graph
  • compare information from different formats - blogs, magazines, books, dvds, conferences, stuff in Google Scholar, etc.
  • content behind firewalls - bring these ideas into the active parts of the web
  • find ideas that were popular and spread on other networks, seamlessly aggregate the best parts in a new way which allows the structure to add significant value
  • parallel markets - read information from other markets and relate it to your current market

Less Writing, Higher Quality

Value Blogging is In

Brian Clark recently highlighted that while valuable blogs continue to gain traction, the bloggers who were only popular because they were early are seeing diminished traffic and are fading in relevancy.
It makes sense that many of the original bloggers would fade because blogging about oneself is narcissistic and highly irrelevant to most readers, while blogging about technology and the web is quite easy, and there are thousands of people doing it.

What Makes Content Valuable?

The difference between value and non-value content is how unique the content and thoughts are, and how actionable the content is. If everyone else reads the same channels you and I do then us posting about their information has little value. In an ironic twist, that is one likely reason this is a low value post.

The Importance of Formatting & Framing

Almost all content ideas are recycled. The key is to target your message to an audience and format your message in a way that gives you credit as being the thought leader who came up with it. Jakob Nielson continued his (well structured) rants against blogging with Write Articles, Not Blog Postings. He didn't have to call thin low value information blog posts, but he did to help target his message at bloggers and have them spread his message.

Information Pollution

From Jakob's article

Even if you're the world's top expert, your worst posting will be below average, which will negatively impact on your brand equity. If you do start a blog despite my advice, at least screen your postings: wait an hour or two, then reread your comments and avoid uploading any that are average or poor. (Even average content undermines your brand. Don't contribute to information pollution by posting material that isn't above the average of other people's writings.)

The best channels, the ones worth paying attention to, filter. They are valuable as much for what they DON'T publish as they are for what they do publish. If you have an ad supported business model then information pollution is an effective means to increase profit margins, but if you sell consulting and/or content a different approach is required:

Elite, expertise-driven sites are the exception to the rule. For these sites, you don't care about 90% of users, because they want a lower level of quality than you provide and they'll never pay for your services. People looking for the quick hit and free advice are not your customers. Let them eat cake; let them read Wikipedia.

The reason TropicalSEO is so good is that Andy only publishes every once in a while. If you publish everyday eventually you run out of stuff to say. Blogging is just like writing songs or books. Each writer only has so much in them before they have to take a break to gather their thoughts and find more material to write about.

Jakob also mentioned that by writing longer articles that you create content which is not only of greater value, but hard to duplicate. It is why my book is read more frequently than my best blog posts, and part of what makes writing 20 page articles fun and worthwhile .

Are New Bloggers Experts?

I think we are all experts at things we have experienced, but any field worth being in takes a while to become an expert. To become a publicly recognized expert you have to

  • garner attention and keep it

  • develop many social and business relationships
  • build a personal brand
  • have thick skin

The hard part about writing in depth stuff when you are new to a market is that if you are still learning there is little upside to trying to write beyond your knowledge level. When I did that people took time out of their day to email me reminding me of what a horrible human being I am. I still get some of that.

A better approach to getting traction for a new blog is to add an element of social interaction to it, leveraging the brand and reach of others. Awards, interviews, and contests work great. After you get a bit of attention make sure to follow that up with some higher value content to turn one time readers into subscribers. It is hard to imagine a blog market more saturated than SEO, and yet in 3 weeks Patrick Altoft built 10,000 links.

How to Lose Relevancy

One can talk about the current hot memes, like Squidoo spam is right now, but ultimately nobody cares to read 31,843 people blogging about Terry Semel stepping down. The only way to build a brand talking up memes is to be the person who started the meme, or have such influence that you can re-frame the meme and gain ownership of it.

Deleting Garbage

As content quality improves short me too posts end up costing more than what they are worth. I have known of people who deleted a year and a half of archives because it wasn't worth the link equity the content was wasting, when it could be spread across higher value content.

The threshold for usefulness will continue to increase as more content is available online in richer and more interactive formats.

When Garbage Content is an Effective Monetization Strategy

Internet marketing advice is rarely universally useful. Here are 3 cases where low value information pollution is an effective strategy:

  • If you are in a market full of garbage it is not hard to beat it by being slightly different and then bolting a bit of linkbait onto it. In many consumer finance markets just rewriting the affiliate feed is all you need to start getting traction.

  • If you have an older authoritative site and are not effectively monetizing it you can add a related offer sections.
  • If you are a blog or a media website that regularly publishes news you can backdate commercially oriented posts or publish special advertisement sections without adding noise to your main channel (blog, newsletter, RSS feed, homepage, etc).

Content Without Subscribers Will Become Worthless

Traditional Publishers Are Wising Up to the Web

The WSJ posted an article about travel publishers wising up to the web, placing large chunks of their books online:

John Wiley & Sons, the publisher based in Hoboken, N.J., is offering an array of free travel tidbits and articles on the site of its Frommer's travel-book series. Not only can visitors to the site read blogs or listen to podcasts, they can plan and book trips -- generating commission revenue for frommers.com.

When you think of the authority of the Frommer's domain name (over 10 years old, PR7, 364,000 links), they must be able to get millions of pages of content indexed.

The first publishers to put their whole books online will see amazing returns because few people are doing it. The WSJ article stated that Wiley was already enjoying 10 to 15 million a year from 3 flagship sittes (Frommer's, For Dummies, and Cliff Notes). After hearing the early results, others will follow, putting all or nearly all of their content online. The lagging publishers will make crumbs, but their books will flood the search results with content that undermines the value of lower quality content.

Books Publishing is Fast Becoming a Vanity Industry

I was offered to get SEO Book published by one of the leading book publishing houses. I have made more in a day than what they were offering me as down payment for writing the book. And they wanted me to do all the book marketing as well, for no further compensation unless I sold enough books to make the hot books lists. It didn't help that my profit margins from a book sale would have been less than what I pay for a click.

I was unwilling to get published because I thought there was upside in the current model, in a growing market, and realized that the model of being published did not work unless I was interested in feeding my ego, in need of credibility, or was writing a book just to up sell more expensive services.

Ad Revenues Are Richer Than Book Profits

If I couldn't afford to buy ads for a physical book, that hints that the format and price-point lock in value in a way that is far from the potential returns if that value was unlocked.

I recently went on a book buying binge to get content ideas for one of my sites. I spent over $500 buying 30+ books, searching through them for their ideas, their structure, and their format. It was easy to do that because they are so under-priced relative to their value. I have an AdSense site that was far easier to create than many of those books were, but it makes about $1,000 a day.

If those publishers just put the content online they would make far more than I am from my AdSense site. My AdSense model only works so long as they don't put their content online, or I create a better known brand than they do.

Defending an AdSense Site's Viability

If your strategy is entirely long tail keyword oriented and you don't have a real brand your income will fall sharply in the next couple years. Site targeted AdWords will cause premium publishers to get paid more for similar content, and position placement reports will trim back the ad buys on sites with limited exposure and few conversions.

Not only will many of these books go online, but many of them with serious distribution and authority will act as gateways or clearinghouses for related books. What is to stop a publisher from pushing 10 other economics books on the Freakonomics site? Why not turn Frommer's into an endless sea of travel information?

Whoever introduces an idea gets credit for it, but, as hinted by my book buying binge tip, most of the content on the web is just copied and repackaged. Packaging and formatting can make an idea or kill it before it has a chance to spread. Everywhere I look there are free tips on formatting and monetizing, numerous competitors testing and tweaking, and market feedback is near real-time if I change my format or offer.

The only way to avoid losing to big publishers is to create real brands, position them as self reinforcing authorities, aggressively monetized and reinvest in marketing, and get hundreds or thousands of subscribers to spread your message and do your marketing for you.

Momentum is a force. Use the force. ;)

Content Strategies: Bulk Content vs Higher Quality Information

Rupert Murdock is trying to trade Yahoo MySpace for a 25% stake in the combined company. If Yahoo goes through with that, Rupert's $580 million MySpace investment will be worth about $10 billion. But should Yahoo do it?

Everyone Wants Dow Jones

Why Everyone Wants Dow Jones

The reporting at the WSJ may be better than other places, but even more importantly are the relationships that are in place and the perception that it is better. As many of the newspapers see their margins erode the top few will have more leverage over the market, because the smaller players will be forced to rely more on community created news (mostly noise or something Google could easily replicate) or syndicating news from companies like Dow Jones.

As content quality and relevancy algorithms improve and Google (or similar outfits) control more of the traffic supply the noise content will become less and less accessible (because traffic sources will rank the higher quality stuff to sell ads against and clone the low level stuff to keep hold of that traffic stream). The MySpace experience is not hard to clone.

Yahoo Does Not Need MySpace

Yahoo could grab MySpace and get a bunch of low value inventory in a spam filled network on the decline, or they could get the #1 financial newspaper for less. Yahoo already has a lot of traffic. They don't need another layer of noise. If they could innovate in the social space they ought to be able to do it with their current assets and traffic stream. As the web gets better at filtering signal vs noise, quality will beat out quantity nearly every time.

The Solidification of Markets

As offline players wake up to the online world the following is happening

  • search will get more relevant and become harder to manipulate (unless you already have significant offline influence or other assets you can leverage)

  • markets will get more efficient
  • all online verticals will get more competitive
  • markets will consolidate

How Does This Crap Relate to Me?

As markets evolve the threshold between signal and noise changes. Is your site the type of site that would be easy for Google to clone? Is your content the type of contet Google created the supplemental index for?

Look how bad some of the top ranked content is that still ranks because it is old and was considered high quality content years ago. Imagine how much harder it will be to crack into markets a couple years from now, when people are working so much harder to make higher quality citation worthy content today in so many formats.

The later you start the harder it gets. An hour of focused energy building citation worthy and brand building content today is worth 2 hours next year and 4 hours a year after that.

The effort spent building two parallel sites targeting the same keywords would be better spent creating one stronger brand. Markets are self reinforcing and exposure leads to more exposure.

To stay competitive independent webmasters will increasingly need to chose fewer high quality projects over a large quantity of cheaper lower quality information. Top trusted editorial channels have far more value than bottom feeding networks.

If My Mom Read This How Would She React

Jun 17th

Most linkbait tends to focus on controversy, flavor of the moment hot items, or various forms of regurgitated content. Short term sites can get a spike from such activities, but real longterm brands are not built exclusively off them. Many people ask me how to create something remarkable and linkworthy. You can research just about any market and come up with a few ideas in 10 minutes. See what ideas spread in the past, and see what news stories were popular in parallel markets. Look at

  • what people are talking about in the market right now

  • the top search results
  • popular related searches
  • terms in the same field that are often covered by the mainstream media (or others who point authoritative links at competing sites)
  • bookmarked results on social media sites

You can take it one step further and create something you would be proud to show your mom. Certainly cliche to say that, but if you are creating that kind of content then you are on the right path. And if your mom hates your market or is no longer around, see who the leaders are in your market and impress them. From their perspective, is what you are doing unique and original enough to be comment worthy. Be honest.

There is also one other way to tell if what you are doing is going to be highly linkable or a passing fad. Imagine you were the person in the market who is seen as the leading authority for the keyword or idea you are going after. Is your idea good enough that the person you want to replace would be willing to link at it or try to copy it (depending on the type of person they are)?

If they are likely to recreate your idea what tangible assets can you leverage to make it hard to duplicate? Is there a way you can brand the idea as your own to where others market your brand by even mentioning the topic? Is there a domain name that adds credibility to your offering? Is there a way you can ask for community involvement to get other topical gurus to help spread your idea?

It doesn't matter if you try and fail. You at least learn from it. Eventually something will stick, and you only need to be right once.

What is a Newspaper Website?

Jun 12th

It is something you throw co-branded lead generation offers on to get past search engine quality scores and search relevancy scores based on domain trust and authority.

Washington Post Advertisement.

With classifieds becoming a free service, it won't be long until these types of lead generation pages are on every major news site. Soon after that, they will heavily link to them from their content articles, further blurring the line between content and advertisements. But then again, that is the standard Google is setting by mixing videos in their organic search results, and suggesting people watch related video ads.

Automated Content Development & Moral Dilemmas in Marketing

Fantomaster had a great comment about whether automated content generation is moral:

I don't really get the "moral dilemma". Would you say the same about press releases, product announcements, ads, commented statistical tables and other forms of corporate droidspeak? And if not - why not?

I mean, it's not as if the Web as a whole were particularly dominated by high end literary prose, deeply suggestive well crafted poetry or similar feats of human creativity.

And, when you think of it, what is Mahalo but a human compiled scraper? Why is it ok that the WSJ publishes auto-generated looking advertorials? Thompson, like search engines, already produces automated content.

Journalistic integrity matters most to those who need you to believe others are unethical for their business models to work.

Why Nobody Clicks Your AdSense Ads

May 31st

I don't understand why Will Wheaton considers both Google AdSense and Federated Media as jokes for not being able to sell his ad space for more than a couple hundred a month. Consider his ads were

  • laregly irrelevant due to the nature of his site

  • tucked away in the right side bar
  • on a tech blog where nobody clicks

If you want to sell brand ads sell them yourself, or create your own product to sell. If you are selling anything else you have to integrate them into your site. I have seen a CTR in excess of 10% off a single Google AdLinks unit. Those ads were targeted, aggressively integrated, and commercially oriented. That ad unit suffered from none of the faults of Will's ad model.

You need to do more than get free subscribers to create a business model. There are always new things to talk about in the tech, gadgets, and my life categories, but most of them probably have little commercial value.

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